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Don’t Look Up (2021)

A scorched Earth satire that flirts with a literal scorched Earth, Don’t Look Up is writer/director Adam McKay’s star-studded condemnation of everything stupid and myopic in media, politics, and pop culture. Jennifer Lawrence plays a doctoral student who discovers a comet heading for direct cataclysmic impact with Earth, and she and her astronomy mentor (Leonardo DiCaprio) are trying to sound the alarm but nobody seems to be listening. Not the president (Meryl Streep) and her inept chief of staff/son (Jonah Hill). Not the greedy CEO (Mark Rylance) of a tech company. Not the media where morning TV co-hosts (Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry) are more compelled by music star breakups than pressing science. It makes a person want to stand up and scream about priorities, and that’s McKay’s point, one that will be bludgeoned again and again. This movie is animated with seething rage about the state of the world and the cowardice about facing obvious problems head-on. It’s fit as a climate change allegory but COVID-19 or any scientific crisis could be applied as well. It’s about choosing ignorance and greed, about deferring to our worst instincts, and those in power who profit from inaction. I laughed at several points, some of it good cackling, and the movie is dark to its bitter end. This is the bleakest movie of McKay’s foray into his more sober, activist movie-making (The Big Short, Vice). It’s less Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, exploring the foibles of humans reconciling their last moments of existence, and more Idiocracy, where there is a lone voice of reason and the rest of the population are aggravating morons that refuse to accept reality even if it literally means just looking up with their own eyes. In some ways, the dark laughter the movie inspires is cathartic after years of COVID denials and mask tirades and horse medicine. The satire is bracingly blunt but also one joke on repeat. If you’re the right audience, that one joke will be sufficient. I don’t think the movie quite achieves the poignancy it’s aiming for by the end of its 138 minutes, but the anger is veritably felt. Don’t Look Up wants us to save the world before it’s too late, though the people that need to see the movie the most will be the ones fastest to dismiss it. Still, congrats to McKay for making a movie this depressing and relevant for the holidays.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The French Dispatch (2021)

Wes Anderson’s latest quirk-fest is his usual cavalcade of straight-laced absurdity, exquisite dollhouse-level production design, famous faces popping in for droll deadpans, and the overall air of not fully getting it. The French Dispatch is structured like you’re watching the issue of a news magazine come to visual life, meaning that the two-hour movie is comprised of mainly three lengthy vignettes and a couple of short asides. This narrative decision limits the emotional involvement and I found myself growing restless with each of the three segments. I was amused throughout but each felt like a short film that had been pushed beyond its breaking point. Perhaps that is Anderson’s wry, subtle point considering the entire journalistic voice of the movie feels like somebody made a movie in the style of one of those esoteric, supposedly “funny” New Yorker cartoons. It’s occasionally so arch and droll that it feels too removed from actual comedy. This is not the most accessible Anderson movie for a newbie; it’s very bourgeois in the kinds of people it follows, the stories it pursues, and the intellectual and political conflicts it demonstrates. The first and best segment follows Tilda Swinton discussing a heralded but imprisoned experimental artist (Benicio del Toro) who is dealing with the pressure to produce. The second segment follows Frances McDormand as she investigates a Parisian student union revolting against the ignorant powers that be. The third segment follows Jeffrey Wright recounting an assignment where he investigated a master police chef (not “chief”) and gets in the middle of a wacky hostage negotiation. Each of them has the requisite charm and random asides we’ve come to expect from Anderson, including a leotard-wearing strongman that is called upon by the police to help during the hostage crisis, but it felt more like a collection of overlong short films than a cohesive whole. If you’re already a fan, by all means, step into The French Dispatch. If you’re new to the idiosyncratic world of indie film’s most precise curator, then I’d advise starting with a more digestible and earlier Anderson entry. I enjoyed myself during stretches, was getting frustrated during other stretches, and I hope Anderson focuses more on the big picture of his next picture.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Dune (2021)

I attempted to read Frank Herbert’s novel Dune when I was in the seventh grade. I had begun to read more fantasy literature and was looking at older, heralded novels. I can still recall my frustration of reading those first five pages and having to repeatedly flip back and forth to a twenty-five-page glossary of terms so that I could even start to comprehend what was happening on the page. After those five excruciating pages, I gave up. Maybe I was too rash, and maybe my older present self would be more accommodating to the struggle, or maybe it just wasn’t worth the effort. I never watched the 1984 David Lynch adaptation that was met with great derision from critics and fans alike, although it does have its vocal defenders (Hindsight alert: Lynch turned down directing Return of the Jedi to helm Dune). So when acclaimed filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) became attached to direct a big-budget, large-scale adaptation of Herbert’s novel, I was finally interested for the first time in my life. It was originally slated to be released in 2020, and after the studio planned to release Dune onto its HBO Max streaming service, Villeneuve and the production company negotiated to make sure a theatrical release would still be an important part of the plan. Alas, I watched the 2021 Dune at home, and I found myself enjoying the experience and development of the world building. However, it’s unlikely to watch this version of Dune and feel like you got a full movie for your money.

In the distant future, like 10,000 A.D., mankind has colonized worlds and the most important planet of them all is Arrakis. It’s a desert world inhabited by poor natives, Freeman, who live a moisture-preserving life mining the natural “spice,” a special substance that makes space travel capable as well as prolonging human life. The top family houses are vying for dominance and House Atreides has been assigned by the unseen Emperor to rule over Arrakis and bring it and its spice production back in line. Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees great opportunity but also great danger. The other houses will scheme to engineer the failure and desolation of House Atreides, especially House Harkonnen, led by the Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), who is like a mixture between Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now and Marlon Brando from The Island of Doctor Moreau (plus with levitation powers?). Paul Atriedes (Timothee Chalamet) is his family’s heir and much is expected of him, especially from his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who believes he may be long-prophesied messiah. On Arrakis, Paul and his father must tackle this very delicate new mission while keeping the many adversaries at bay.

As anticipated, Dune is yet another visually stunning and gorgeously immersive visual experience from one of the greatest visual filmmakers working today. If you can watch the movie on a big screen, or at least a bigger screen, then you owe it to yourself to do so. The sweeping vistas and startling science fiction imagery have so much power and grandeur to them. If Lynch’s movie inspired a generation of devotees and impressionable children, I imagine that this superior modern version will do likewise. The production design and costumes are terrific and perfectly in keeping with the larger scope of the expansive visuals. You really feel the size of this world and its imposing weight. Villeneuve has such a natural keen eye for pleasing visual compositions, but he also has the patience many famous big screen stylists lack. He allows the moments to linger and to let scenes breathe in a way that feels more transporting and immersive. If you were simply looking for a visually resplendent movie-going experience, then Dune is the ticket. The sound design is also very smartly aligned and makes use of unconventional and alien sounds to make the movie feel even more like its own thing. When Dune came out in 1965, this was before much of the modern building blocks of our sci-fi pop-culture, so in a way while Dune was the influence it feels partially like an odd after-effect rather than a predecessor. The same thing happened with 2012’s John Carter, based upon a novel a hundred years old that influenced many sci-fi adventure serials and now seems derivative even though it came before the many imitations. I was happy with the first 90 minutes of Dune and felt like the slow pace of the first hour, and its heft of needed but spaced-out exposition, was paying off with a thrilling assault. The concept of the protective shields is a smart way to communicate the casualties of battle, where “kill shots” are illuminated in red, informing the audience of a mortal wound. It makes for an easy to read visual to keep up with the development of battle and stay in a safer PG-13 realm. The whole rescue sequence on the mining station is thrilling at every step.

The cast is another major credit to the success of Dune. Chalament (Little Women) has a soulful yearning to him, to learn, to be his own man, to prove his father wrong and then prove worthy of his father’s faith. Surprisingly, the next biggest role isn’t Zendaya (Malcolm and Marie), the woman that Paul dreams about (prophetically?); it’s Rebecca Ferguson (Doctor Sleep) as Paul’s mother. She’s a woman with deep secrets belonging to a powerful religious sect that might be the real power behind the throne. Lady Jessica is more Paul’s mentor than any man. She teaches him to hone and focus his mind, to use the “Voice” to impart his will, and to prepare for the hardships to come. With every new exposition dump, and she has many, we learn about her growing concern for the fate of her son and her possible culpability for that fate. There’s a genuine warmth between them that serves as the film’s emotional core. I enjoyed watching Jason Momoa (Aquaman) and Dave Bautista (Army of the Dead) as opposite ends of Super Good Fighter Guy, though Momoa looked unsettling without a beard. Needless to say, the 2021 movie is far more diverse than the 1984 movie. It makes space feel more lived in when it’s reflective of a diversity of people that we already have at this point in our history.

And then, after the hallway mark, Dune became a protracted sequence of chases and then I started to worry that things were just going to end in an unsatisfying manner, relegating the 150 minutes as setup for the as-yet-unplanned sequel, and that’s exactly what happened. My mood began to deflate somewhat during the last hour of Dune. I was still interested and the visuals were still mighty captivating, but the events had the unmistakable feeling of being stretched out to meet a frustrating stopping point, a pause that didn’t produce a satisfying endpoint. I just kept thinking, “Oh, they’re not going to resolve this,” and, “Oh, Zendaya is barely going to be in this movie,” and the movie proved my predictions correct. It’s hard to judge the movie as its own entity since it’s so dependent on a Part Two that has yet to be greenlighted (though its strong opening box-office returns are hopeful). This is an expensive movie, possibly pushing $200 million, so it’s quite a gamble to declare you would only be adapting roughly half of the story. Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel, a movie I loved, had a budget of $150 million and a worldwide gross that didn’t make the producers comfortable going forward with a Blade Runner 2050. To be fair, that was an original story, a sequel, and rather well contained. Still, it’s an expensive sci-fi movie that has as much in common with dry art house fare as it does blockbuster adventures, like Villeneuve’s Dune. The promise of a second movie is not secured. If Dune doesn’t do well enough, we’ll forever be left with a movie that feels designed to only be a teaser. It reminds me of the hubris of 2007’s The Golden Compass where the filmmakers had a whole 20-minute finale that they carved out with the intention of having it be the opening for the assumed sequel (welp). Even when designing a multi-movie arc, it’s necessary to plan each entry so that it can exist as its own beginning-middle-end and with a suitable intermediary climax. The Lord of the Rings movies each had their own climax, each moving the larger picture forward, and each had storylines and subplots that came to a head by film’s conclusion. Dune doesn’t. There are more dead characters by the end and certain characters are displaced, but it feels less like the end of the big-budget Dune movie and more like the conclusion of episode two of the Dune mini-series.

My resonance with the source material is minimal, but the world of Dune feels stuffed with stuff and not as deep in the realm of commentary. Fans of the book series will likely thrill at the level of minutia the 2021 movie luxuriates in, allowing fans to lap up the lore. For those of us uninitiated into the fandom, it feels like there could be more going on behind the scenes. The book was released in 1965 and has clear parallels to Middle East occupations and quagmires, a subject even more relevant in the first quarter of this new century. There’s the occupying force coming in to manage the supposedly primitive natives on a desert planet, replacing the last occupier who made bold promises that were unable to be met by the reality on the ground. The parallels of colonialism are there and obvious, but that’s because everything in Dune seems obvious to me. The bad guys are corpse-white and dressed in all black. They look like the alien zombies from 1998’s Dark City (itself referencing the silent sci-fi classic, Metropolis). The leader of House Harkonnen is this noxious man who bathes in black goo and sucks the life force from others. I don’t need my sci-fi to be ambiguous about its heroes and villains. We clearly recognize the bad guys because they’re grotesque. However, the lessons learned by the heroes seem a bit stilted. Its attacks on capitalism are a little more nuanced but not much. The planet of Arrakis could produce water but that’s not in the interest of the power brokers of the galaxy. They need the spice for the economy and thus keep the exploitative status quo. The parallels are there but there’s not much more to be had other than direct summations. The movie has more to say with religion and messiah figures but at this point we’re grading on a curve, and the more complex commentary attached to messiah figures seems reserved for a Part Two.

Another aspect I want to highlight that seems trivial but no less intriguing to me is how Herbert chooses his character names. We’re eight thousand years into the future, spanning multiple planets with names like Arrakis and Giedi Prime and Salusa Secondus, and then we have such anodyne twentieth-century names like… Paul and Jessica? It’s funny to me that Herbert goes to the trouble of coming up with so much jargon and terminology and alien-sounding names and then he says, “Hey, this guy’s name is… Duncan Idaho,” like he’s a supporting character in Point Break. I realize this is a very dubious criticism, and there are other character names to conflict with this assertion, but it made me laugh at the different levels of effort Herbert put into his world-building and universe than selecting character names for that same far away land.

After watching the new Dune, I went and watched the 1984 David Lynch version for the first time and was, quite simply, dumbfounded. I’ll credit Lynch for many of the weird choices in style and how it never stoops to even be accessible for a mass audience, despite having characters explicitly narrate their schemes and motivations out in the open (by scene one, the power play that took up 90 minutes of Dune 2021 is awkwardly explained in full). By the end of Lynch’s movie, it is an incomprehensible campy mess. I only have more appreciation for the 2021 Dune after watching the goofy (those eyebrows!) 1980s version that Lynch has disowned entirely, although that stirring guitar riff from the score still rocks thirty years later. The new Dune is only intended as Part One as its presumptive title promises, and because of this key artistic decision, there’s a feeling of padding and wear by the end. I found myself reflecting back on the first 90 minutes more fondly. It’s not that the last hour is absent great moments or audacious style, but it’s hard to fully judge this Dune when its last line is its own conditioning of expectations: “This is only the beginning.” The 2021 Dune is a visually remarkable movie experience with fantastic artists executing at some of the highest points of their talent. I’m eager to see if a Part Two can provide the satisfaction lacking in this beginning half. It’s a hell of a start but it feels too incomplete and in need of an ending.

Nate’s Grade: B

Little Women (2019)

By my count, this is approximately the 182nd version of Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War sisterhood. There must be something universal about the trials of the March sisters and their struggles for independence, agency, love, and happy endings on their own turns. Greta Gerwig, fresh off her Oscar nominations for Lady Bird, has given Little Women a decidedly modern spin. The story flashes back and forth between past and present, sometimes in consecutive shots, and feels full of authentic youthful energy. It’s also the first adaptation I’ve watched that has fixed the problem of Amy (Florence Pugh, affecting), widely regarded as the least liked sister. Through Gerwig’s telling, she becomes a self-determined woman, just like Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who recognizes the social trappings holding her back but chooses to do her best within this unfair system rather than rage against it. It’s like an empathetic reclamation for this often reviled character. The enjoyment of Little Women is how vibrant and different each of the March sisters is and how an audience can see degrees of one’s self in each little woman. Jo is by all accounts our lead and her struggle to be a successful writer pushes her against conventions of the era. There is an invented and very amusing bookend where Jo bickers with a blowhard male publisher (Tracy Letts) about “women’s melodrama.” It’s a meta commentary on Alcott’s book herself, especially with the helping of marriages and happy endings by story’s end. Ronan is a force of nature in the film and sweeps up everyone around her with charm. Meryl Streep is supremely amusing as an older rich aunt bemoaning the girls won’t get anywhere without marrying a wealthy man. The limited options for a working-class family are given great consideration, but it’s really a movie that seems to pulsate with the exciting feelings of being young, having the world stretch out before you, and chasing your dream, rain or shine. It’s also gorgeously shot and feels so assured from Gerwig as a solo director. There are a few detractions for this new 2019 Little Women, the biggest being how confusing it can get with its melded chronologies. If this is your first exposure to Alcott’s story, I fear you’ll get lost more than a few times trying to keep everything in order. The love story with lovesick pretty boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) feels tacked on even though it’s a feature of the novel. This newly structured, reinvigorated, charming remake of a literary classic feels definitely of the period and of today. It’s the first Little Women adaptation that made me realize how timeless this story really can feel in the right hands. It may be the 182nd version but it might be the best one yet.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Hostiles (2017)

A slow-paced Western with A-list actors, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is a ponderous Western that feels too lost in its own expansive landscapes. It’s about an Army captain (Christian Bale) reluctantly taking the lead to escort a Cheyenne chief to die on his native soil. As you could expect from that premise, Hostiles is reverent and meditative to the point of boredom. It deals with Major Themes about man’s place in the world, connection to nature and the land, and our treatment of Native Americans, but it feels like it believe it’s saying a lot more than it accomplishes. The final film is over two hours but I kept waiting for the movie to feel more substantial, for the real story to start. The premise is workable and there are some interesting side characters, notably Rosamund Pike as the sole survivor of her family’s Native American attack, but it all feels underdeveloped to serve the central figure. It’s a story of one man having to come to terms and forgive himself for the cruel things he’s done in the past in the name of glory, honor, and patriotism. There are too many moments where characters reach out to remind him that he is, in fact, a Good Man. It gets to be too much. The talented supporting cast is generally wasted. Bale (The Big Short) is very internal, almost far too insular as a man speaking with looks and eyebrow arches, as he feels the weight of his soul over the course of this journey. I just grew restless with the movie and kept waiting for it to change gears or get better. Hostiles is not a poorly made movie, nor without some artistic merit, but it’s too languid and lacking.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Molly’s Game (2017)/ Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.

Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.

In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.

I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.

Nate’s Grades:

Molly’s Game: A-

Call Me By Your Name: B-

Lady Bird (2017)

Coming-of-age movies typically coast on a combination of mood, sense of place, and character, and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird excels in all areas and supplies a straight shot of happiness to the senses. Gerwig serves as solo writer and director and tells a semi-autobiographical story of “Lady Bird,” a quirky, determined, feisty, self-involved, and vulnerable teenager (Saoirse Ronan) trying to leave the lower-middle-class confines of her Sacramento life for bigger pastures. Ronan (Brooklyn) is spectacular in the title role and displays a heretofore-unseen sparkling sense for comedy, punctuating Gerwig’s many witty lines with the exact right touch. This can be a very funny movie and it has a deep ensemble of players. Ronan’s character is a magnetic force of nature that commands your attention and finds ways to surprise. The film follows her high school senior year’s ups and downs, potential new friends, bad boyfriends, social orders, family struggles, jobs, and most importantly her dream of getting into an East Coast college and leaving the trap she sees is her hometown. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts) are stressed and exasperated with their demanding daughter. Metcalf (TV’s Roseanne) is outstandingly affecting as the beleaguered matriarch. Much of the movie’s ongoing conflict, and later triumphs, revolve around the fraught mother/daughter relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf are never better than when squaring off. This is a movie rich in authentic lived-in details and observations. It can stray into overly quirky territory but Gerwig as director has a remarkable feel for when to hold back. There’s a genuine and poignant family drama at its heart that doesn’t get lost amid the whimsical additions that cater to Lady Bird’s vibrant personality. By the end of a coming-of-age movie, the characters should feel a little wiser, having learned through heartache, bad choices, and changes in perspective. This isn’t a movie about big moments but about the ebb and flow of life and the formation of one’s sense of self. We should enjoy having spent time with these characters on their journeys. With Lady Bird, I couldn’t stop smiling like an idiot.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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