Waiting for the Worms

Dune

by Hope Madden

Denis Villeneuve’s vision for Frank Herbert’s Dune is as gorgeous and cinematic as you might expect from the filmmaker behind Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival. The worlds, the interiors, the exteriors, the space crafts, the spice, the worm — each articulated with a sense of wonder, as if the director himself was awestruck by what he saw.

That vision is hampered by a number of things, but the cast is not among its faults. Though Part One contains too many glorified cameos, even those are handled with care.

But let’s start at the top. Timothee Chalamet, whose genuine vulnerability makes him the perfect emo savior, is a natural for Paul. There is depth and almost humor to the performance. Even with only the first part of his journey completed by the end of the 2 hour and 35 minute film, his arc is clearly underway.

Oscar Isaac is so wonderfully Oscar Isaac as Paul’s noble but human father, and Rebecca Ferguson is exquisitely tortured as Paul’s mother. Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Josh Brolin, Jason Momoa and especially Javier Bardem all leave impressions with minimal screen time.

But the film has two problems, they are both pretty substantial, and they are both the story.

Problem #1 is that Dune Part 1 is half a film. You can make a multi-part story and still have several lovely, complete, standalone films. Kill Bill did it. Dune did not. It ends at the halfway point and that is exactly how it feels: 2 and a half hours to halfway there.

The second concern is that the source material is a white savior film. By casting almost exclusively people of color as the indigenous Fremen people of the conquered planet Arrakis, Villeneuve was at least facing the issue directly. That same laudable decision also exacerbated the situation, however, by turning Dune from a metaphorical white savior story into a literal white savior film, as the very white Chalamet takes on the mantle of messiah to lead the Fremen toward salvation.

He’s a dreamy messiah whose hair is forever mussed and hanging in his big, brown (for the moment) eyes, sure. But we know where this is going, even if we have no idea when we’ll get to see it arrive as Dune Part 2 is not yet filming.

It’s a lot of very attractive waiting for something to happen, which is maybe the best Dune synopsis I can think of.

Drug Problems

Sweet Girl

by George Wolf

You know that feeling when someone comes out of a security door at the precise moment you’re trying to come in without a key?

Or when a major cable news show puts your call right through to the air on the very same day you find a uniform in exactly your size hanging up and waiting for you to blend in somewhere you don’t really work?

Me neither. So while Netflix’s Sweet Girl calls attention to a very real problem in America, the narrative that drives it trades authenticity for gimmicky contrivanace.

Through a frequently changing timeline we meet Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa) and his daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced). Tragedy hits their Pittsburgh-based family when wife/mother Amanda Cooper’s life is cut short by cancer. Amanda fights hard, but finally succumbs when a promising new drug is withheld by obnoxious Pharma Bro Simon Keely (Justin Bartha).

While Keely and Congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman) are on live TV debating prescription drug prices, Ray calls in to blame the price-gouging Keely for his wife’s death, and to promise violent revenge.

Ray’s nationwide threat seems to only arouse the interest of an investigative reporter on the trail of a Big Pharma conspiracy, and when Ray’s meeting with the writer turns unexpectedly bloody, father and daughter become fugitives hunted by both the cops and the killers.

In his feature debut, director Brian Andrew Mendoza utilizes Momoa’s hulking charisma via some standard fight choreography, but the gifted Merced seems wasted. Writers Gregg Hurwitz (The Book of Henry) and Phillip Eisner (Event Horizon) serve up a journey of convenience on the way to a third act twist that will define how smoothly the film goes down.

If you can keep your eyes from rolling, this film may feel like the franchise kickstart it aims to be. Otherwise, Sweet Girl leaves a pretty sour aftertaste.

Strike a Pose

Justice League

by George Wolf

Fair or foul, each new superhero film release spurs a check of the scorecards: Marvel vs. DC. Last year, Wonder Woman finally put a solid check in the DC column, one that Justice League only leaves frustrated and alone.

Nearly every facet of the film not only betrays a few promising avenues left undeveloped, but also its basic superhero tenets that are bettered by similar films (including the underrated Batman v. Superman). These friends aren’t super, they’re awkwardly forced and often helpless against some distracting CGI.

Perhaps even more than superpowers, big screen heroes need memorable villains, and the newly formed Justice League offers none. Instead, they have Steppenwolf.

Steppenwolf is a mass of weak computer graphics (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), born to be wild but currently in search of the three “mother boxes” he needs to unleash “the end of worlds” and send everyone back to the Dark Ages.

With Superman (Henry Cavill) still dead, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) recruit the surly Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the young Flash (Ezra Miller) and the brooding Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to join the cause.

They have the bodies. What they don’t have are characters worthy of investment.

Director Zack Snyder has them pose, trade overly dramatic declarations, and then do some additional posing while you may be checking your watch.

Comparisons to the first Avengers film are inevitable, especially with Joss Whedon on board as a co-writer, but Justice League just cannot get any resonance from the darker tone of the DC franchise. The push to be heavy and meaningful is an empty suit, despite well-meaning lip service to refugees and the importance of science.

Ironically, as the Marvel films continue to lean more comedic, the humorous moments in Justice League, usually courtesy of Miller and Mamoa, are among the film’s best. Rather than undercutting any dramatic tension, the humor here feels more logical and organic, similar to the highly effective funny bone in the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming.

And, with Gadot back on board, the difference in Wonder Woman through a male director’s lens is hard to miss. Yes, she gets some bad ass moments that she’s more than earned, but she also gets a more sexualized, less earnest presentation.

There are two extra “stinger” scenes to send you out discussing who the JL is fighting next, but perhaps the lasting impression of Justice League is just how behind-the-curve it all looks. Steppenwolf seems lifted from an old gaming commercial you might find on that VHS tape still lurking in your basement, while Cavill’s digitally-altered mouth (to remove a contractually obligated porn ‘stache he had during reshoots) sits there proudly like a new zit on prom night.

There is substance to be gleaned from DC, Wonder Woman was proof of that. But for now, Justice League is two tired steps back.

 





Stars, Stripes & Appetites

The Bad Batch

by Hope Madden

Three years ago, Ana Lily Amirpour dazzled moviegoers with her sleek and imaginative vampire fable A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

The film tells of a solitary female figure and the surprising impact of unlikely companionship. Amirpour called the film a “vampire western.”

If you haven’t seen the film (and you should, immediately), but you like the premise, then Amirpour’s follow up The Bad Batch might also appeal to you. It mines a similar vein, although the context is a bit more merciless.

The film’s provocative opening of mostly voiceover under credits introduces the concept of the “bad batch” – unwanteds. Drugs, immigration, petty crime – it’s never clear what this batch has been up to, but we know where they’re going. They’re headed to a quarantined expanse of arid Texas desert no longer considered part of These United States.

Once the images on screen take form, Amirpour creates an atmosphere of dystopian terror that the balance of the film never quite reaches again.

Newest resident Arlen (Suki Waterhouse – very impressive), realizes just how Mad Max this can get moments after gates are locked behind her. In a breathless and brutal piece of cinema, we are introduced to one of two communities thriving in this wasteland.

The Bridge People are hyper-bulked up, ultra-tanned cannibals represented by Miami Man (Jason Momoa). (They may not have access to steroids, but they’re certainly getting a lot of protein.)

The second community of Comfort offers a colorful, almost habitable environment led by charismatic leader The Dream (Keanu Reeves).

With these two communities, Amirpour moves very clearly into metaphorical territory, ideas she underscores nicely with strategic use of the American flag.

One version of America sees the vain, self-centered “winners” literally feeding on the weak. The second may seem more accepting, but it pushes religion, drugs and other “comforts” to encourage passivity.

It’s a clever but unwieldy storyline, and Amirpour has trouble concluding her tale.

She has a great cast, though. Joining Woodhouse, Momoa and Reeves are flashes of Jim Carrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Diego Luna and a host of the freakish and intriguing.

Amirpour has such a facility with creating mood and environment, and though the approach here is different than with her debut, she once again loads the soundtrack and screen with inspired images, sounds and idiosyncrasies.

Her opening sets such a high bar – one she fails to reach again – and her finale feels too conventional for this character and this world. They’re fairly slight criticisms, but with a filmmaker of such amazing talent, they can’t help but be a let-down.

Verdict-3-5-Stars