2021 Movie Reviews: Dune / The French Dispatch / The Last Duel

Some very big movies this week.

Dune: Part I

Splish-splash, Skarsgaard’s takin’ a bath.

I’ve never read Frank Herbert‘s novel but I’ve seen the ill-fated 1984 David Lynch film adaptation and despite a few interesting visual ideas, the movie was a gigantic mess. It was as if Leatherface edited it with a chainsaw, entire blocks of story were missing and what we ended up with was this weird collage of futuristic 80s and Victorian Era visuals. So going into this, I really didn’t know much of the story of Dune other than a rich teenager saves poor people from a morbidly obese flying asshole. Fortunately, one of the things screenwriters Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth, and Joe Spaihts do well is explaining both the plot and the politics of the world to you in one simple conversation between Timothee Chalamet and Oscar Issac that never seems melodramatic or shoehorned in. Once we know what the game is, we can sit back and really enjoy the absolutely gorgeous and innovative CGI/practical effects blend Villeneuve has on display for us. People often say a location a movie is set in is like another character itself, but the effects in Dune are like another character onto themselves. They are maybe the most impressive visual effects I’ve ever seen in a film, it’s an absolute event witnessing this shit and for the first time since Parasite, a movie has made me literally drop my jaw in awe. The world-building in this Dune is absolutely astonishing and distracts you from the real flaws going on like pacing and structural issues and even character development issues that no doubt arose due to having to tell this massive chunk of story in two and a half hours. It’s as simple as this, watching this movie in the moment, I didn’t care about any of these things. I was so wrapped up in the world they created and all the little weird things about it (the telepathy, the balsamic vinegar spa, how spitting is a compliment from the Fremen because you’re sacrificing your precious body moisture) that I could have watched this for another two and a half hours. The acting of the film is universally excellent, with Rebecca Ferguson standing out as Lady Jessica. Overall, the choice to hire instantly recognizable faces was a great move since Villenueve didn’t have time to deep dive flesh everyone out, and the choice to have those faces be some of the best actors in the industry was great because they could take these thin on-the-page characters and really make them their own. If there’s a major complaint here is that it’s only half of a story and when this ends, it simply stops, prompting me to be like “I have to wait another two years to see how this ends?!” Well, if Part 2 is anything like this one I’d wait five years. If they fuck it up, I’m coming for them though. Grade: B+ (In Theaters and HBOMax)

The French Dispatch

Timothee Chalamet and Frances McDormand having sex gave me more nightmares than Halloween Kills.

Schedule your optometrist appointment in advance because you’re going to roll your eyes so hard you may rupture a cornea. Wes Anderson‘s latest hipster amusement park ride is a beautifully detailed thing to look at but completely hollow once you examine it closer. An anthology series meant as an ode to The New Yorker or some pretentious shit, The French Dispatch is structured like an issue of one of these magazines, with three major stories complete with an intro, a mini-article, and an epilogue. The first story, easily the best and the only one I found even remotely humorous, follows a painter turned serial decapitator (Benicio Del Toro – who steals the film) who, while serving a life sentence for his crimes, gets forced into doing art shows by some millionaire dickhead (Adrien Brody – best he’s been in a while). It’s told from the perspective of one of the writers of the Dispatch played by a very funny Tilda Swinton, who is recanting the story as part of a live lecture series. The second story follows a journalist played by Frances McDormand who is writing about a young child revolutionary (Timothee Chalamet) who wants a bigger bathroom or something at his co-ed boarding school? Anyway, they have sex and it’s awkward. This is the weakest story and the one my optometrist should be most worried about. The final story is slightly more engaging but completely all over the place in terms of structure and even incoherent in spots. It follows another writer from the Dispatch, Jeffrey Wright, who is writing a story about a nerdy kid that kind of looks like a mini-Richard Ayoade being kidnapped by Edward Norton because Willem Dafoe goes out in the middle of the night with his briefcase or something. Something about the Mafia? It all comes together with an epilogue that’s basically a eulogy for their editor (Bill Murray), who we spend no time getting to know yet are supposed to be moved by his death and how his team perseveres beyond it to keep publishing their stupid shit rag magazine. This movie really annoyed me but I have to give credit where it’s due. It’s so gorgeously constructed from an art direction standpoint that it’s impossible to hate it and while it does squander pretty much all of its enormous cast, it’s impressive they got all those celebs together for something that wasn’t Movie 43. It’s very clever to structure the movie like an issue of this magazine, with three major stories, a mini-one, an intro, yadda yadda, but the stories should be more interesting than this. They are all, even the competent first one, so focused on the aesthetic, you never understand any of the characters. It’s insane the same guy that got famous with Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, two extremely character-focused narratives, basically just creates a pretty dollhouse here. When you get close and take off the roof, you realize everyone is just plastic. Grade: C+ (In Theaters)

The Last Duel

Let’s fight over WHO gets to ruin this woman’s life.

It’s a shame The Last Duel is doing so poorly in the box office because it’s really the best movie Ridley Scott has made since Black Hawk Down twenty years ago. Set in 14th century France, The Last Duel follows a historical dick-measuring contest between two best friends and knights, Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, equipped with a mullet) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) that starts off about land ownership and taxes and then quickly evolves into the rape of Carrouges’ wife, Marguerrite (Jodie Comer), by Le Gris. Le Gris claims she “only doth protest the way a woman usually does” which for the Church and local Count (a really fuck boi-ish, bleached blonde Ben Affleck) means that rape doesn’t exist. Marguerrite persists she was raped and ends up being treated how men would treat women in that situation in the 14th century and totally not how they would today in 2021 – they don’t believe her and even make her out to be the bad guy. Since she’s clearly lying, they say that if her allegations are proven false, she will be burned to death while everyone jerks off. So they decide to leave the verdict up to G-O-D, Carrouges and Le Gris must fight in their last duel and whoever dies, loses. The story is split into four parts – Carrouges’ perspective, Le Gris’ perspective, Marguerrite’s perspective and finally, the last duel between the two former friends. It’s sort of like if Rashomon not only revealed what actually happened, but revealed what happened right up-front. The format is significantly less engaging that way. The Last Duel isn’t a perfect movie, it sets out to make maybe the first-ever big-budget Medieval #metoo movie and in the process tries to take on more than it can handle. The Damon/Driver stories chug along amiably, but the meat of the movie is Marguerrite’s perspective, and unfortunately, it’s not materialized until almost an hour and a half in. It’s a shame because it’s the only somewhat unique perspective in the entire film. All three actors do a fine job, Driver and Comer a bit more natural than Damon, and Ben Affleck is perfectly cast as his character from Dazed & Confused‘s great great great great great great great great great great grand uncle. The writing is a bit on-the-nose with some of the “Science proves pregnancy can’t happen with rape!” lines, but it’s hard to argue what a terrible time this was for women, really everyone, but especially women. It’s amazing so few period pieces from this era have touched on that. Grade: B (In Theaters)

ALSO NEW IN THEATERS

Halloween Kills

Michael Myers (aka The Shape) in Halloween Kills, directed by David Gordon Green

Halloween Kills is hands down the most violent Halloween movie outside of the absolutely grotesque Rob Zombie entries, but that doesn’t make it a good movie, that doesn’t even make it a movie. This installment is so convoluted and scattered, without a satisfying beginning, middle, or end (and I get it’s the middle part of a trilogy, but let’s be real, The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight absolutely have a beginning, middle, and end) it kind of just spouts off for an hour and forty-five minutes before just stopping. Some of the kills are good, a lot of the comedy falls flat and even feels like unfunny, deleted scenes from Eastbound & Down (especially with the neck brace guy from The Righteous Gemstones and his lover, Michael McDonald), but I felt constantly disengaged by this one. Just ask the healthy young man sitting next to me who slept through most it. The cold open is easily the best part of the film, a flashback to when Myers was captured by police back in ’78, after disappearing from that balcony he was shot off at the end of the original. It’s fun, suspenseful, and feels a little different. We then cut back to present day with Jamie Lee Curtis in a medically-induced coma, more random homeowners getting killed and Anthony Michael Hall as Tommy Doyle, who is some sort of truther leading an angry mob to capture and kill Michael Myers a la Halloween 4. There’s also a bunch of mask references to Halloween III and of course, references to Halloween I & II including the return of Doyle, Nurse Chambers, Sheriff Brackett, and even little Lindsey Wallis. It seems like this movie exists mostly to try to contextualize why we love the Halloween franchise, and 80s horror franchises in general, and compulsively re-watch even the shittiest entries. It’s convinced there’s something deeper there than mere nostalgia, but there’s really not. The original Halloween was a (perfectly executed) bare-bones genre exercise that had no concern with character development besides the most one-dimensional basic shit they had to do to establish the teens as realistic. It also didn’t mean or try to mean anything in the context of current socio-political issues (which is almost surprising given Carpenter’s strong political streak through his filmography). The movie was just about a random psycho chasing you. If these filmmakers love these movies so much and want to pay homage to what Carpenter did, why don’t they just make their own bare-bones genre exercise instead of dump-trucking elaborate mythos nobody asked for into a derivative slasher sequel template. It’s shot really well though. Grade: C- (In Theaters and Streaming on Peacock)

No Time To Die

At 163 ass-numbing minutes, this is simply too much Bond movie, which is a shame because Daniel Craig deserved more of a send-off than this. The cold open really grabbed me I have to admit, the introduction of Rami Malek‘s mask-clad villain slowly walking through heavy snow to clinically murder a man in a secluded winter cabin doesn’t feel like a Bond film at all. It feels like something better, a thriller with an actual angle perhaps. That scene shakes out rather unpredictably and by the time we shift to Bond living in seclusion with Blue is the Warmest Color star Lea Seydoux, only to be brought of retirement by Blofeld’s goons in an extremely explosion action sequence, I’m like this is going to be good. And then the Billie Eilish opening credits conclude and slowly but steadily the movie starts to lose its originality and submit back into the tired Bond movie jello mold. After the first hour or so, we’re in a frustrating hodge-podge of glued together pieces of other Bond films. Essentially this feels like a greatest hits reel of Bond movies and not the stellar send-off we’ve been promised for two years. Rami Malek‘s introduction is stellar and you keep waiting for him to get more interesting and develop, but then you realize there’s really nothing more. He’s one of the most inert villains the franchise has ever seen with acting that aims so subtle it could be mistaken for subliminal. The writing of the part suggests equal parts Silva from Skyfall, Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, and even a bit of Robert Carlyle‘s character from the abysmal The World is Not Enough. When it comes to Bond, Daniel Craig is as solid as ever and the new 007 agent played by Lashana Lynch is also quite good. But their back and forth banter is so mild and derivative, which can be said about almost anything in this. It’s like they were so afraid to piss anyone off with anything that they settled for the Chile’s of Bond movies. Occasionally tasty, occasionally shitty, but mostly just bland. Grade: C (In Theaters)

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