As well-regarded as Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel Dune is, it’s had quite the journey making it to the big screen. First, there was a failed attempt in the mid-1970s by avant-garde auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose efforts were documented in 2013’s Jodorowsky’s Dune. Then came the 1984 adaptation by then up-and-comer David Lynch, who has since disowned the film despite its small but fervent cult following. Now Denis Villeneuve, who earned his sci-fi credentials with Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, is up to translate Herbert’s expansive work to cinema and he proves that the third time’s a charm. Simply put, this is large scale science fiction done to perfection: wholly immersive, richly detailed and bursting with imagination. If you’ve been waiting to go back to the theaters, it’s difficult to imagine a better movie for which to return.

The year is 10191 and humans have populated throughout the universe. The ocean planet Caladan is governed by House Atreides, led by Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his partner Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) with their heir Paul (Timothée Chalamet). By decree of the imperial emperor, Atreides is called to take over control of the desert planet Arrakis from House Harkonnen, led by the corpulent Baron Vladimir (Stellan Skarsgård). During their reign, Leto aims to make peace with the Fremen, a nomadic group of natives who vigorously protect the planet’s prized natural resource known as “spice”. After an ambush on Arrakis splits Paul and Jessica up from the rest of House Atreides, the two must navigate the treacherous deserts with the few resources they have at their disposal.

While Dune weaves in dense futuristic concepts, myriad new terminology and lots of different languages into its narrative, its primary tale is modeled after the hero’s journey popularized by Joseph Campbell. If you’ve seen The Matrix or the original Star Wars trilogy, this story template will feel familiar, even though Herbert’s novel pre-dated all of those movies. Villeneuve spices up this formula with a world that is overwhelming in its scope and exemplary in its specificity, a treat especially for those unfamiliar with Herbert’s work as I was before watching the film. There are times I allowed myself to tune out of the plot for a moment and surrender to the meticulously rendered images. For that reason, among others, this film should richly reward rewatches.

Villeneuve has assembled some talented casts in his previous films but he’s really outdone himself this time. The ensemble, which finds Villeneuve teaming up again with actors like Josh Brolin and Dave Bautista, features each actor and actress in a role that’s perfectly tailored to their skillset. For example, Charlotte Rampling is only in one scene but her chilling presence gives her limited time a memorable stamp. I can’t say I’ve entirely warmed up to Jason Momoa just yet but as a cocksure pilot named Duncan Idaho, he’s playing perfectly in his wheelhouse and makes the most of his swashbuckling screen time. As the leads, Chalamet and Ferguson get the most time to shine and both give lived-in performances that register on a deeply empathetic level.

Inexplicably, Warner Bros. has yet to officially greenlight a sequel, even though the movie is titled on-screen as Dune: Part One and it ends on a cliffhanger that explicitly sets up a larger battle to come. This is the same studio that waited to announce It Chapter Two only after It made beaucoup bucks at the box office, even though the first movie only told half of the story from the book that inspired both films. WB’s reticence in allowing Villeneuve to shoot both chapters at one time likely comes from the financial disappointment of Blade Runner 2049 but if that’s the case, why give him Dune in the first place? Even if Part Two takes longer to arrive than it would if things had been planned better, it’ll be more than worth the wait if the follow-up is as stellar as this opening salvo.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Last Night in Soho, starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anya Taylor-Joy, is a psychological horror movie about a present-day fashion designer who is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s, where she encounters a dazzling aspiring singer.
Antlers, starring Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons, is a supernatural horror film about a middle-school teacher whose enigmatic student hides dark secrets that lead to terrifying encounters with a legendary ancestral creature who came before them.
My Hero Academia: World Heroes’ Mission, starring Daiki Yamashita and Nobuhiko Okamoto, is a superhero anime which follows a group of heroes as they try to stop a group of terrorists who are out to eliminate superpowers around the world.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

No Sleep October: Sinister

Originally posted on Midwest Film Journal

At this point, I think it’s a bit of an understatement to say that COVID-19 screwed a lot of things up. Somewhere far down that list is the fact that Host, the screenlife Shudder exclusive that takes place during quarantine, knocked 2012’s Sinister off as the “scariest movie of all time”, according to Science of Scare. The BroadBandChoices project, which measured heart rate changes in 250 audience members during 40 renowned horror movies, previously crowned Sinister above modern favorites like Insidious and The Conjuring for the top spot. While any such study is a bit silly and doesn’t quite measure exactly what makes a movie “scary”, it’s no fluke that such a terrific horror entry would top the list.

Directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt, whose pulpy sagas like Kentucky Blood and Cold Diner Morning have scored him national attention. Desperate for another hit, he moves his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance) and their kids Ashley (Clare Foley) and Trevor (Michael D’Addario) to a Pennsylvania home where a family was murdered nearby. Early in his research for the book, he happens upon a trove of Super 8 reels stashed away in the otherwise vacant attic and fires up his film projector to investigate. What he finds is a series of gruesome “home movies” where a happy family is murdered in different ways during each film. Further sleuthing allows Ellison to conclude that something supernatural (and perhaps…sinister…?) binds the footage of each of these accounts together.

With co-writer C. Robert Cargill, Derrickson sets up a properly compelling foundation around a man who’s willing to put his wife and children at risk just for another round of success. It’s a potentially difficult protagonist to pull off but Hawke, one of the most amiable actors around, makes us believe in Ellison’s drive and struggle to taste the spoils of victory one more time. Tracy throws everything she has into her support of him and his work — “when you’re happy, we’re all happy,” she acknowledges — but makes no secret that she’s at her wit’s end with his selfish determination. We learn that the fallout from his previous book made them pariahs in the town where they previously resided, a fate that Tracy understandably can’t bear to relive.

It’s a believable setup of pressure and expectation that puts Ellison in a compromised position even before the first frames of the formidable films flicker. With seemingly innocuous titles like “Pool Party ‘66” and “Sleepy Time ‘98”, it doesn’t take long for their opening scenes of familial bliss to turn grisly in a hurry. Derrickson adds a nice directorial touch in the form of a progression (or regression, of sorts) of Ellison’s dependency on alcohol to cope with the violence he observes in his line of work. By the time he watches the second movie, he breaks out the whiskey. By the third home movie, gentleman’s on-the-rocks sips have devolved to desperate straight-up guzzles. By the fourth, the rocks glass is out of the equation entirely and it’s just Ellison vs. the bottle.

It’s not hard to see why. The Super 8 segments are masterfully crafted bits of nightmare fuel — “Lawn Work ‘86” is my personal favorite — scored to supremely unsettling music from composer Christopher Norr. None of the home movies have audible dialogue but Norr’s warbly pianos and muted guitars do all the talking that’s necessary. The terrifying sequences, which were shot using real Super 8 cameras and film stock, have a grimy quality to them that chillingly recalls the aesthetic of actual snuff films. The single point light source limits our perspective and forces urgency on the already horrible images, drawing our focus away from who is shooting these awful films and why. The same morbid curiosity that drives audiences to slasher movies time and time again will keep them glued to the screen during these stretches of Sinister.

The other sections of spookiness in the film are a bit more rote but still quite effective, mainly comprised of Ellison chasing after bumps in the night while having too much pride to turn some damn lights on. The sources of noise turn out to be traceable to tangible objects at first before eventually giving way to apparitions that pop up with increased frequency. These ghosts could probably just float around casually but let’s face it: it’s much more fun when their presence is a bit more demonstrative. The film’s finest jump scare, which caused my wife to make a terrified noise so embarrassing that she still remembers it almost 10 years after we first saw the film in theaters, occurs at such a moment.

Grossing $87 million against its budget of $3 million (a proud Blumhouse tradition), Sinister went on to generate an inevitable sequel that doubles down on its ultimate baddie much in the way the Cars franchise went all-in on Larry the Cable Guy for Cars 2. Without giving too much away, the monster in Sinister is frightening in his own right but it’s the atmosphere and build-up that ultimately make his presence menacing. In the sequel, he looks like someone cosplaying as a member of Slipknot. The focus on the backstories of the ghostly children doesn’t give the film extra depth either; it just drags everything down. Sinister II isn’t the first horror sequel to miss the boat when it comes to what made its predecessor work so well but its failings may actually make the original’s successes even more pronounced by comparison.

After directing another horror film with 2014’s Deliver Us from Evil, Derrickson got sucked into the MCU to helm a little indie called Doctor Strange, whose recently-delayed sequel will arrive next Spring. Fellow horror director Sam Raimi taking the reins on that franchise freed Derrickson to team up again with Cargill and Hawke for The Black Phone, another supernatural chiller arriving next February. I’m doing my best to avoid trailers these days but on the strength of their work together on Sinister along with the news that Hawke will be portraying the villain instead of the hero, I’m in line for it already. No matter how that turns out, I’ll always have this 2012 classic to revisit each year when the leaves start trembling and darkness creeps up a little earlier every night.

Halloween Kills

All things considered, horror movies aren’t dissimilar from comedies. Both benefit greatly from the element of surprise and suffer most when redundancy renders story beats predictable. One has setups and punchlines; the other has tension and release. Scary movies and funny movies tend to perform better in movie theaters than their dramatic counterparts, most likely due to their ability to draw spontaneous reactions from a crowd. For the same reason you don’t see many consistently great comedy trilogies, outstanding horror triptychs aren’t very common either and the latest Halloween entry Halloween Kills is further evidence of why that’s the case. It’s a middling middle chapter of a three-part saga that is still struggling to find purpose outside of furthering a franchise fronted by an unstoppable force.

Those who have yet to watch 2018’s Halloween or haven’t rewatched it since its initial release would do well to remedy that before going into Halloween Kills, as it picks up the action right after its predecessor. Michael Myers survivor Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is being rushed to the hospital by daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) as the masked murderer stays trapped in her burning home. Unfortunately, firefighters didn’t get the memo about basement-bound Michael and are taken out one by one after unwittingly freeing him. After hearing the news of Michael’s escape, town local Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall) rounds up a posse to put an end to Michael’s 40-year reign of terror.

Fans of the Halloween franchise will recognize the setup of Halloween Kills mirrors the now incontinuitous Halloween II, which also takes place primarily in a hospital where an injured Laurie Strode hides from Michael Myers. However, the pace and atmosphere of the two movies are vastly different. Eschewing the cat-and-mouse tactics of that 1981 sequel, this new film favors a much more chaotic and vicious methodology when deploying its narrative. The inevitable slayings at the hands of Myers are curiously absent of the kind of suspense that John Carpenter built up so flawlessly in the original 1978 Halloween. Instead, returning director and co-writer David Gordon Green seems especially fixated on the bone-crunching and blood-squelching brutality exhibited towards Myers’ victims.

Of course, this is a slasher movie and I can’t exactly begrudge its impulses to stack up bodies, especially when some of Myers’ murders are admittedly well-staged and well-lit. Additionally, the camerawork and editing during the film’s climax are more compelling than most of the aesthetic choices Green made previously in 2018’s Halloween. Another welcome diversion that he makes to the traditional formula for this series is the exploration of themes like herd mentality and the insatiable desire for revenge. When Tommy Doyle leads an angry mob chanting “evil dies tonight!” past security guards protecting the hospital, its real-life parallels are truly scarier than anything in this film.

When Green conceived of this new trilogy (which will “conclude” with Halloween Ends next October) with co-writer Danny McBride, he seemed to have a beginning and end in mind but not quite as much for the middle. Asking myself the questions “where is Michael and why?” at various times during the movie, I struggled to produce satisfactory answers. If Michael’s sole motivating force is to kill Laurie Strode, as it would seem to be, then this film is nothing more than a collection of particularly gruesome detours. Perhaps Green and company will have something more profound to say about Myers and Strode in their final chapter but until then, Halloween Kills will have to suffice as a halfway decent time-killer during the spookiest of seasons.

Score – 2.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is Dune, a sci-fi epic starring Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson about the son of a noble family entrusted with the protection of the most valuable asset and most vital element in the galaxy.
Coming exclusively to theaters is Ron’s Gone Wrong, an animated comedy starring Zach Galifianakis and Jack Dylan Grazer about an awkward middle-schooler and his new robot friend whose malfunctions send them on a journey of self-discovery in the digital age.
Streaming on Netflix is Night Teeth, a horror thriller starring Megan Fox and Sydney Sweeney about a Los Angeles chauffeur who picks up two mysterious young women for a night of party-hopping but soon discovers that they’re actually centuries-old vampires.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

No Time To Die

After a year and a half of delays, Bond is finally back. No Time to Die is the 25th movie in the James Bond series but most notably, it’s the fifth and final film for Daniel Craig since his first outing in 2006 with the franchise-best Casino Royale. Each Bond entry since then has built on top of the previous one, an attempt at serialization that makes the Craig era unique in the franchise’s history and gives this final film even more dramatic weight than it would have otherwise. In hindsight, its predecessor Spectre got caught up in the same trap that Warner Bros did with Justice League in trying to match the intertextuality of the ever-elusive Marvel Cinematic Universe without organically leading up to the climax. No Time to Die gets bogged down with canonical calculations but works best as a standalone piece of popcorn cinema.

An extended cold open reacquaints us with Bond and Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) as their picturesque Italian vacation is violently cut short by Spectre assassins. Feeling that Swann must have betrayed him by tipping them off, Bond sends her away and retires from MI6 to Jamaica, only to be pulled back in five years later at the appearance of his old CIA buddy Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright). He’s looking for a scientist who was kidnapped in the process of building a highly-targeted bioweapon and Bond suspects that his nemesis Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is behind the plot. Aiding Bond in his mission are old MI6 colleagues M (Ralph Fiennes) and Q (Ben Whishaw), alongside Nomi (Lashana Lynch), a new agent who undertook Bond’s 007 alias after his retirement.

When No Time To Die‘s release was pushed last year from April all the way to November, it was thought that it was due to anticipation that movie theaters would close due to the pandemic. While that is still most likely the case, part of me wonders if the plot of the movie, which hinges on an invisible infectious virus, was one of the reasons behind the film’s initial delay. As the title suggests, time has proven to be the film’s greatest enemy; fittingly, “my timing” is a punchline during an exchange between Bond and Swann. But timing is one thing and planning is another and looking back on this five film arc, it’s clear MGM could have planned things a bit better. Blofeld being unveiled as the big baddie in Spectre was premature and if development had gone differently, No Time To Die could have served as a much better precursor to Spectre.

For those who don’t care about these interwoven plot threads and just want a fun blockbuster to herald the return of the theatrical experience, the film succeeds on delivering on that promise. Much of the marketing has highlighted the action in Italy during the enjoyable, albeit overly long, prologue but there are several other setpieces that match its quality. A detour in Cuba reunites Craig with his Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas, who charms as an inexperienced CIA agent who gains experience by kicking henchmen in the face with high heels. A foggy jungle-set sequence in Norway shows an outgunned Bond using field smarts to fend off a caravan of assassins. But the most visceral action scene is saved for the third act, in which director Cary Joji Fukunaga flexes the one-take muscles he built during the first season of True Detective to satisfying effect.

While the quality of Bond films that Daniel Craig has starred in have been up and down, he’s given everything to this role and his dedication to the performances has never been in question. For a new generation of Bond fans, he has redefined who the character is and made it almost impossible to imagine someone else taking the reins from here on. Where the franchise goes from here will be the subject of thousands of think pieces and forum posts until MGM (which is, sadly, set to be acquired by Amazon) makes their next move but I’m looking forward to Craig’s post-Bond career. He did excellent work in films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Logan Lucky even during his time as Bond. Whether you view it as a season finale or a standalone episode, No Time To Die has all the time in the world to entertain and inspire.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters and streaming on paid tiers of Peacock is Halloween Kills, a slasher sequel starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Judy Greer that follows the women in the Strode family as they defend themselves against the masked killer Michael Myers.
Premiering exclusively in theaters is The Last Duel, a historical drama starring Matt Damon and Adam Driver about a trial by combat ordered by King Charles VI in medieval France between a well-regarded knight and his squire.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is The Velvet Underground, a music documentary which explores the multiple threads that converged to bring together one of the most influential bands in rock and roll.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #59 – No Time To Die

I’m joined by my friend Logan as we find some time to scrutinize No Time To Die, the latest in the long-standing James Bond film franchise. Then we talk over some new series that we’ve been streaming, including Only Murders In The Building, the comedic whodunnit series available on Hulu, and Midnight Mass, a horror miniseries available on Netflix. We also mention a video essay which makes the argument that The Rock is a secret James Bond movie. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

The Guilty

It’s no secret that American remakes of foreign-language films often fall short of their predecessors. For every success like The Departed or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there seem to be a handful of duds like Downhill or The Grudge — both of which were released just last year — that get lost in translation. Based on the 2018 Danish thriller of the same name, The Guilty retains many of the plot points from the film that inspired it but amps up much of the understated tension that permeated the original. This formula could spell disaster for an adaptation but in this case, the result is a hot-blooded American companion piece to the cool and collected European original that is nearly as effective.

The plot centers around Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal), an overworked police officer working 911 dispatch who receives an especially distressing call at the end of his late-night shift. The voice on the other line is that of Emily (Riley Keough), whose hushed tone and coerced responses lead Joe to surmise that she’s being kidnapped. Outside of her name, phone number and a few clues regarding her situation, Joe isn’t able to get the details that he needs to intervene in a meaningful way. With what little information he’s able to gather from the call, Joe phones other police forces like his partner Rick (Eli Goree) and his sergeant Bill (Ethan Hawke) to help find Emily before it’s too late.

The man heading up directing duties for The Guilty is Antoine Fuqua, known for helming high-octane blockbusters like the deeply silly but shallowly enjoyable Infinite from earlier this year. Predictably, Fuqua amps up the drama and emotion from its source material but wisely retains its limited perspective. With a few minor exceptions, we never see outside of the dispatch building where Joe is trying to solve this pressing case, limited to just hearing the voices of the people with whom Joe is communicating over the phone. As handsome as Gyllenhaal may be, staring at him for 90 minutes could get stale after a while but Fuqua along with editor Jason Ballantine urgently piece together the right shots to command our attention.

One of the most reliable and compelling actors around, Gyllenhaal turns in another terrific performance as a broken hero who feels paralyzed behind a desk when he knows what he’s capable of doing in the field. His work is unmistakably angrier than that of Jakob Cedergren as the composed protagonist in the 2018 original but it suits the revised time and place of this American update. Surrounded by out-of-control wildfires in modern-day Los Angeles, Joe barks orders and lashes out at fellow police officers on the phone as a result of the helplessness he feels bearing down on him. The voice cast, which also includes Paul Dano and Gyllenhaal’s real-life brother-in-law Peter Sarsgaard, is uniformly great but Keough is especially captivating as the shaken woman that captures Joe’s unshaken attention.

With its narrative primarily being told through a series of phone conversations, The Guilty has parallels to the indie drama Locke, which is effectively a one-man-show as Tom Hardy is the only actor seen on screen. Both films ask much of their central performer, dedicating the vast majority of their screen time with the camera centered solely on them. While Hardy had even less room to move as his Locke was locked into the speaker phone in his car, Gyllenhaal is still flanked by 5 imposing computer monitors and an anxiety-inducing red light that indicates when the phone line is live. Though it contains a few creaky platitudes that Fuqua couldn’t seem to resist, The Guilty is a taut and electric thriller that will keep you on the line to the final frame.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this weekend:
Coming exclusively to theaters is No Time To Die, the 25th film in the James Bond franchise starring Daniel Craig and Rami Malek which finds the iconic spy getting back to work to locate a missing scientist and uncovering a sinister scheme in the process.
Streaming on Netflix is There’s Someone Inside Your House, a slasher movie starring Sydney Park and Théodore Pellerin about a group of high school students in small-town Nebraska who are terrorized by a masked assailant.
Continuing on Amazon Prime is the Welcome to the Blumhouse series, marked by a new quartet of anthology horror films centered around institutional horrors and personal phobias.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup