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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: 'Spartacus' with sandworms—'Dune 2' is a worthy...

Screen Grabs: ‘Spartacus’ with sandworms—’Dune 2′ is a worthy spectacle

Just don't think too much about the optics of old-school fantasy. Plus: Animated Chilean docudrama 'They Shot the Piano Player'

Time seemed to slow down a great deal during the initial COVID emergency, and the slowness with which it geared up again has had an odd effect on most people’s inner clocks. The arrival of Dune: Part Two feels aeons removed from Part One, though that prior installment was released just 2.5 years ago—which made it one of the first big, expensive blockbuster-type films to open in theaters after their forced closure, when many viewers were reluctant to return. (Of course, some still are, or simply fell out of the habit enough that they won’t come back.) That mentally expanded gap probably explains my muted reaction to Deux, having thought the first one among the strongest of modern sci-fi fantasy popcorn epics, but being a bit mysteriously underwhelmed by this followup.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s the film’s fault—it’s more that 30 months is a long pause after which to pick up a complicated narrative where you left off. No doubt many fans have already done a preparatory rewatch of the 2021 film, or even renewed their acquaintance with the book (which I read a loooooong time ago). Doing a little such homework wouldn’t be a bad idea before hitting the multiplex this time.

In any case, we’re back on desert planet Arrakis, where the profoundly desirable “Spice” (a magically powerful resource rather more valuable than, say, garam masala) is harvested by argumentative warring offshore entities—to the considerable annoyance and oppression of the Fremen, who actually live there.

Thus the latter were wary, to say the least, when foreign princeling Paul Atreides (Timothy Chalamet) turned up in flight from his noble family’s war with the evil Harkonnens, He and his mother (Rebecca Ferguson) are pretty much the last survivors of their clan’s brutal slaughter by those bad guys (including Stellan Skarsgard and Dave Bautista). Which is tough luck. But it doesn’t make Arrakians more inclined to accept that their uninvited visitors are some kind of long-foretold saviors come at last to free the Fremen.

Of course, they are exactly that, the discovery that mom is pregnant adding another layer of prophetic something-or-other. Part One was impressive for being so engrossing despite its intrigue being mostly buildup for the climactic events/action yet to come. (The reason the two films were made separately—rather than in one prolonged effort a la Lord of the Rings—was because the bleak specter of David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, an expensive and much-ridiculed flop, made it seem wise to proceed one costly budgetary outlay at a time.) Two is thus more action-oriented, with payoffs for elements just teased previously, like generous views of the gigantic sandworms.

The Harkonnens arrive en masse in their hulking black steel vehicles and black armor to kill off the pesky Fremen’s guerrilla forces. A battle or three down the line, the latter camp gradually begins to allow that floppy-haired Paul may indeed be their designated warrior and spiritual leader. This is a bit of an upset, because they don’t really have leaders—their society is based on equality.

Between the Triumph of the Will-like fascist configurations of the bad guys and the Chosen One status of our hero, Dune is not the kind of fantasy that truly cares much for equality. Its innate humorlessness—certainly compared to a sci-fi mythology like that of Star Wars, which no doubt was influenced by Frank Herbert’s original novels—tends to particularly underline this time around that Paul is your classic blue-blooded young white male whose unasked-for Specialness decrees he’ll rescue a more dark-complected, “primitive” people, like Lawrence of Arabia with a laser gun. This may be a “thinking man’s” $200 million dollar sci-fi action movie, but still: Better not to think about it too much.

Part Two has a lot going for it, but as you struggle to recall the context for various ongoing royal disputes and subterfuges (involving characters played by a shaven-headed Austin Butler in Sting’s old role, plus Florence Pugh, Lea Seydoux, Charlotte Rampling, and a bewilderingly out-of-place Christopher Walken), it’s disappointing that the two stressed major story themes are rather dull, and undermined by lack of casting spark.

One is the recurrent “He is Our Savior!”/“No he’s not!!” debate, which rests a bit heavily on Chalamet’s thin shoulders—he seems better equipped to front a retro hipster band like The Strokes than to, y’know, fulfill an Ancient Prophecy and liberate an entire planet. The other is the romance between Paul and Zendaya as Chani, a young Fremen fighter reluctant to admit “My boyfriend is the Second Coming.” Their relationship hits the same pining-but-conflicted notes over and over, minus the performance chemistry to keep that dynamic interesting.

Nonetheless, Dune: Part Two is a quality 21st-century Hollywood behemoth, making good use of good actors (Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin also figure significantly) if hardly taxing their resources. Denis Villeneuve expertly stages the somewhat unwieldy plot, which provides more propulsion than did his somewhat ponderous prior stabs at sci-fi grandeur (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival). They felt stifled by the same aesthetic that is wholly apt here, as if the director were unconsciously edging towards Herbert’s sandy worlds all along. It’s a big, busy spectacle that earns its self-importance (and nearly three-hour length) with a tenor that feels closer to Spartacus or Ben-Hur than your average Marvel flick.

And as those prestige epics of yore were enlarged yea further by the imperial symphonics of Alex North and Miklos Rozsa, so here composer Hans Zimmer pushes for big, bigger, biggest. Indeed, between his score and the equally thundering sound design, Part Two might be mistaken for reviving Sensurround, the mid-Seventies gimmick that literally made theater seats rattle for movies like Earthquake and Rollercoaster. Going with a “less is more” principal by contrast is the depiction of privileged Harkonnen perversity, which Lynch pushed to homophobic and pustule-popping extremes in his ill-starred swing at this material. Here, uber-toned psychotic Butler and latex-laden, Jabba-like Skarsgard are the Laurel & Hardy of space Caligulas. Still, their sadistic cruelties are mostly, mercifully left to our queasy imaginations.

Part One was delayed by COVID, this sequel by last fall’s Hollywood strikes. Bad timing aside, both deliver fantastical big-budget entertainment of above-average taste and intelligence, not elevating themselves above mainstream demands yet raising the bar a little. While you may be temporarily half-deaf after Dune: Part Two, you won’t feel like you’ve sacrificed any brain cells. If this conclusion to the saga (or at least to its first opus…god knows there’s plenty more Frank Herbert where that came from) didn’t seem quite as exciting a culmination as I’d anticipated, chalk that up to a rusty memory, which had already largely buried Pt. 1. Those who want to avoid spending a fair amount of these 166 minutes wondering “Who are these characters again? What’s their interplanetary conflict?” might consider doing a quick synopsis review of the 2021 film before plunking down your sequel moolah. Dune: Part Two opens in theaters nationwide Fri/1.

A visual (and perhaps audio) antidote to Dune’s alternating desert earth tones and fascistic monochromes is They Shot the Piano Player, a new animated feature from the makers of 2010’s Chico and Rita. This is another ode to a historic Latin jazz milieu, although rather than being a fictive love story of Batista-era Havana, it’s a “docudrama” about a present-day journalist whose New Yorker article about the sixties bossa nova craze leads him to obsessively research a long-forgotten pianist preserved only in scattered recordings. He was struck not only that distinctive samba-jazz pianist Francisco Tenorio Jr. had largely been erased from music history, but that his exit—“disappeared” at age 34 in 1976, amidst Argentina’s violent military dictatorship—was further obscuring, his body never found.

This latest collaboration between two veteran Spanish talents, director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoch) and artist/designer Javier Mariscal, reprises Chico’s eye-popping visual appeal. The line-drawing style itself if just serviceable, but what makes the movie is the bold vibrancy of the colors they’re filled in with. It’s like a steam bath in hothouse hues, providing just as much sensory joy as the music heard.

But rewarding as it is in many ways, Shot is also somewhat hemmed in by its reportorial-investigation narrative, which isn’t that absorbing. It also has a terribly distracting element in that real-life writer Jeff Harris’ character is voiced onscreen by Jeff Goldblum, whose voice is so singular that we can never forget the actor’s presence for a moment. (The casting makes honorific sense because Goldblum, too, is a jazz pianist—but that voice is as jarringly distinctive as Jimmy Durante’s.)

When we eventually learn Tenorio Jr.’s fate—suffice it to say his torturer-killer eventually confesses, fearing little consequence so late in the game—it is very sad, if unsurprising. Sad in particular because the musician had been scrupulously apolitical, so his death was wholly unnecessary even by the brutal logic of military dictatorships. But the lack of surprise makes these 103 minutes feel longer, with a digressive narrative progress that could’ve been much more compactly told, especially given its detective-mystery genre tilt.

Jazz and samba aficionados will be gratified not just by the music, but by the number of players and composers interviewed by Harris (or heard in archival audio) including such luminaries as Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento and Joao Gilberto. Fans of their sounds will be ecstatic. I’ll admit that when things got a little repetitious for my taste both sonically and plot-wise, I just zoned out and drank in the spectrum of saturated tropical colors Mariscal lays out for us like an ocular feast. They Shot the Piano Player opens Fri/1 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in SF.

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