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.