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Friday, December 3, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: 'Dune' and 'French Dispatch' finally arrive. Do...

Screen Grabs: ‘Dune’ and ‘French Dispatch’ finally arrive. Do they live up to the hype?

At least we get a double dose of Timothée. Plus: The French Have a Name For It, 'No Future,' more new movies

Two big event movies—one for the mainstream audience, another at least a big event for the director’s admittedly pretty-large fanbase, both delayed many months by COVID—arrive this in theaters this Friday. The plus-sized one is Dune, or rather Dune: Part One (as it’s actually titled onscreen), because the producers decided to see how this first half does before green-lighting a second half that will likely also cost close to $200 million. No doubt they’re haunted by the shadow of David Lynch’s 1984 version, a Dino De Laurentiis behemoth that was a critical and commercial disaster. 

That Dune, which Lynch himself apparently dislikes (he “prefers not to discuss” it), has acquired the defenders inevitably attracted by anything big, weird, and popularly reviled. But really: It is not good, despite a few memorably grotesque and/or daft flourishes. (There were also two pretty-good Dune cable miniseries a couple decades ago, and we can only dream about the what Chilean-French surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky might have created in the 1970s, when his plans advanced far enough to eventually generate the delicious 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune.) 

Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario) version is an immediate improvement, its projected five-hour length requiring no confusing crush of verbal explication like the ’80s film fell prey to. Those who feared it would bog down in the ponderousness of this director’s last couple films should be relieved: While stately, Dune doesn’t plod like Arrival or Blade Runner 2049, and the perhaps too-tastefully-spare earthtones aesthetic that semi-strangled the latter is perfect for this story of stark desert landscapes. (On the other hand, it’s a pity the desert-space-opera milieu now inevitably recalls Star Wars, esp. its underwhelming prequels, as presumably Lucas borrowed ideas from Dune, rather than the other way around.) Really, the only significant minus here is that this being Part One, we’re all too aware at the end of being left smack in the middle of a larger narrative arc.

Indeed, this is a first-rate action fantasy that is serious without being too pompous, and fantastical-enough without getting silly. The right to mine “Spice,” a “sacred hallucinogen” and valuable power source found only on desert planet Arrakis, triggers deadly conflict between the good guys of House Atreides (ruled by Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson and their son Timothee Chalamet) and the bad guys of House Harkonnen (led by Stellan Skarsgard’s evil Baron and nephew Dave Bautista). Long abused by such outsiders, the native Fremen of Arrakis nonetheless perceive that Chalamet’s Paul may be their “chosen one,” savior, Luke Skywalker, or whatever you wanna call it. 

Also factoring in are Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, and others, many of whose characters will not live to see Part Two. Wisely, Villeneuve withholds any clear view of those giant Arrakian sandworms until next time—perhaps fearing the world hasn’t yet have recovered from the absurdity of seeing Kyle MacLachlan “ride” them 35 years ago. 

Indeed, nothing here is laughable, including the villains: Eschewing baroque excess, the director spares us anything like 1984’s Sting in a gilded loincloth, or pustule-covered Kenneth McMillan as a floating homophobic nightmare. He provides spectacle, but also subtlety. This Dune may be the most intelligently done and satisfying thing of its general ilk, on this kind of scale, since the Lord of the Rings trilogy—let’s hope it gets to be completed. 

If Dune is much better than many expected, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch makes the opposite impression: It’s an anticipated delight that turns out to be a disappointingly flat, one-time-too-many regurgitation of the director’s usual bag o’ tricks. This time the various twee anecdotes and starry character rollcall get hung on the notion of a Kansas-funded Paris magazine bureau whose history is recalled in the wake of its longtime editor’s (Bill Murray) death. 

There are three major “articles”: One about the discovery by an art dealer (Adrien Brody) of a brilliant abstract painter (Benicio del Toro) in a mental asylum; another about a middle-aged journalist’s (Frances McDormand) dalliance with a student revolutionary (Chalamet again) in those turbulent Sixties; and finally the search for a Police Commissioner’s (Mathieu Amalric) son, kidnapped by a criminal syndicate (including Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe). Jeffrey Wright, Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, Anjelica Huston, Lea Seydoux, Henry Winkler, Christoph Waltz, Liev Schreiber, Stephen Park, and others are among those luminaries who mostly turn up just long enough to be recognized and arch an eyebrow.

Yet the only performer in these cluttered ranks who got a smile out of me was Tilda Swinton, amusingly swank as a socialite art aficionado. Anderson’s aesthetic is in full flower, with the wildly artificial design contributions and camera schemes utterly characteristic—yet this time without charm. I’m not sure what went wrong here, beyond the obvious fact that he’s overmilking basic French stereotypes minus much novelty or wit. Nor even a basic raison d’etre, as The French Dispatch is (as the final credits duly point out) a tribute to the glory days of The New Yorker. 

A style and sensibility this rarefied really needs the elusive flame of inspiration. Without it, Anderson is just imitating himself (as well as Tati and Roy Andersson). Some diehard fans will no doubt be delighted anyway, dammit, but this is one stale box of bon-bons. 

On the other hand, those looking for something Gallic and still reasonably fresh can indulge at length this Sunday at the Roxie Theatre with a one-day return of guest programmer Don Malcolm’s sporadic The French Had a Name For It series. This entry pays tribute to the leading popular male stars of two successive eras, via a pair of double bills taken from the decade in which they overlapped. The afternoon provides two early vehicles for Jean-Paul Belmondo before his (and Godard’s) 1960 breakthrough with Breathless: then-newbie director Claude Chabrol’s ’59 domestic intrigue Web of Passion aka A Double Tour, and venerable Children of Paradise helmer Marcel Carne’s attempt to grapple with “troubled youth” the prior year in The Cheaters aka Les Tricheurs

In the evening, there are two melodramas showcasing the late-career appeal of archetypal Gallic proletarian male Jean Gabin: As an aging gangster in Jacques Becker’s 1954 heist film Hands Off the Loot! aka Touchez pas au grisbi, and as a doomed trucker in Henri Verneuil’s 1956 People of No Importance aka Des gens sans importance. More information here. There will be more revivals on tap in a three-day edition of “The French Had a Name For It” Nov. 12-14. 

Also opening this weekend are two very serious new dramas about death, grief and complicity:

The Subject 
Phil (Jason Biggs) is a successful, award-winning documentarian who’s attracted controversy in the past for arguably exploiting his subjects, as a transplanted white middle-class Midwesterner filming at-risk minority lives in the Manhattan inner city. He’s particularly stressed at present, as he attempts to wrap up one project while fending off media inquiries re: a gang-related Harlem killing he not only witnessed, but videotaped. As if all that weren’t enough, he’s got a high-maintenance girlfriend (Annabella Acosta as Jess) who does not cope well his hiring a pretty, fawning, flirtatious young woman (Carra Patterson’s Marley) as personal assistant.

This first directorial feature for Lanie Zipoy, scripted by playwright Chisa Hutchinson, wrestles provocatively and intelligently with some thorny ethical as well as social issues. It’s got strong performances, particularly from Biggs (putting American Pie behind him at last) and Aunjanue Ellis (If Beatle Street Could Talk, Lovecraft Country) as Leslie, the mother who blames him for her son Malcolm’s (Nile Bullock) death. The exact circumstances of that event finally come to light in flashbacks as these two characters, both united and bitterly opposed by grief, confront one another. 

But as forceful as that material and its execution is, The Subject is structurally flawed—awkwardly divided between a first half that ranges a little too freely between different relationships and time frames, then a second half that is very much a theatrical two-hander. While that first hour probably wouldn’t have worked on stage, the second doesn’t feel like it was written for film. They’re both powerful in their ways, but taken together, the very different dramatic techniques clash. Even so, The Subject (which isn’t opening in any Bay Area theaters, but is available on TVOD/Digital platforms as of Fri/22) remains worth seeing. 

No Future
A more smoothly engineered if no less agonizing look at maternal loss and blame is this potent sophomore feature by the writing/directing team of Andrew Irvine and Mark Smoot. Will (Charlie Heaton from “Stranger Things”) and Chris (Jefferson White) were childhood friends whose promising band and everything else got consumed by mutual drug addiction. Now the band is dead, and both young men are struggling to stay clean. But Will has acquired a job, a house, a girlfriend (Rosa Salazar); he’s successfully moved on. That cannot be said for Chris, who has to live under his mother Claire’s (Catherine Keener) roof, as well as the weight of her anxious concern. Seeing no future for himself, he orchestrates an exit. 

Guilt and grief unite Will and Claire in the wake of that death—each feels the other understands their loss in a way no one else can. Still, he continues to hide some particularly bleak truths from both her and Becca, creating psychological traps that only grow more hazardous when the relationship between grieving friend and mother crosses into a different kind of intimacy. 

Grim as much of its content is, No Future is not just a dirge. The excellent performers (which also include Jackie Earle Haley as Will’s semi-estranged father) find nuance and empathy in this very well-judged drama. But it is not a redemption tale. Addiction here is a spiral from which no escape is ever final, and the expectation of a happy ending is something best left to fairy tales. No Future is being released to limited theaters and VOD platforms this Fri/22. 

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