“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.”
Creating an epic space opera without “Star Wars” in the title is a financially risky proposition, and the chief criticism of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is that it tells only half a story if its A-list cast fails to attract a wide enough audience for the second film to be made. I approach the film as a fan of the director rather than Frank Herbert’s novels but the script maintains the rich political intrigue between the familial houses laying claim to desert-planet Arrakis. The scenes of violence and war are always in service to that story. Timothée Chalamet is an excellent choice for Paul Atreides, making him seem vulnerable despite his lineage and skills. This is a man driven by dreams and visions, a storytelling device that I always find less compelling on screen than in writing, an indulgence detrimental to pacing. Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s own uncompromising vision is evident in almost every frame, from the ruggedly realistic clothing and stark geometric sets to the insect-inspired vehicle designs and a desaturated colour palette so tightly controlled that merely seeing green on Arrakis comes as a shock. Indeed the inhospitable world of Arrakis is utterly absorbing (even as the plot slows) in a way I have not felt since Avatar‘s Pandora, but the rest of the galaxy feels strangely empty — we may see large armies on different planets, but there is no sense that these are living, populated places. Dune is beautiful in its detailed grandeur which excels on the big screen but it can also be sluggish and bleak, held back from greatness by an ultimately unsatisfying ending, even if there are thematic justifications for where the line was drawn.
“Harder to tell the good from the bad, the villains from the heroes these days.”
Typically the Bond films of each actor to take on the role end in a downward trajectory, but the inconsistent films of Daniel Craig’s tenure have culminated in perhaps the best swansong for a Bond actor to date, even if it sits firmly in the middle of the pack when it compared to Craig’s previous outings. Bond is at its best when it reinvents itself and, as I have previously opined, it arguably has less to do with the actor than the direction. Cary Fukunaga’s languid pacing and sombre tone suits the more personal story — even its opening swaps the usual kinetic action for a flashback horror sequence with an endangered child. No Time To Die is considerably too long at 163 minutes, featuring plenty of striking locations but little memorable action (aside from an early car chase and a tense woodland hunt). Ana de Armas brings the most energy to the film, though her presence is sadly restricted to one self-contained sequence. There has been an organic character arc through the Craig era from Bond proving himself in Casino Royale to the seasoned professional in Skyfall and now the introspective retired agent recognising that the politics behind espionage have become increasingly grey. A long-promised and overdue shift in this final outing is the greater depth to the female operatives and to Bond’s relationships. Conversely, Safin is one of the weakest Bond villains to date (through no fault of Rami Malek) and the franchise’s continued reliance on facial disfigurement as a shorthand for “villain” — with three examples in this film alone — is a tired anachronism. No Time To Die may not be Bond at its best, but the franchise continues to mature in a fitting send-off to its most human incarnation.
“There’s no breeze! It could be any one of these tunnels! Take your pick!”
By boiling down a spelunking-trip-gone-wrong into its base fears — the dark, claustrophobia and mistrust of one’s own senses — Neil Marshall is able to wring out an impressive level of atmospheric tension and dread. An entirely female group of thrill-seekers exploring the cave creates a refreshing dynamic, though only the core group of three friends have any real depth. The trick that makes The Descent so effective is a cunning opening sequence that uses and undermines the tropes of horror editing to make the viewer question their own anticipation of events. This makes later sequences more unsettling when the line becomes unclear between reality and characters’ imaginations (particularly in the case of Sarah, whom we know suffers hallucinations) as the group’s literal descent extends to a metaphorical one. My chief criticism is with the action-orientated sequences in the latter half of the film, the darkness and jump-cuts often making it impossible to ascertain what is unfolding. Similarly, the sound levels have a tendency to swallow quieter dialogue, detracting from some (admittedly predictable) interpersonal revelations. It is worth noting that the ending in the English release, though less than a minute longer, is more satisfying than the truncated version released for American audiences.
“It’s lockdown: nobody knows what day it is, let alone the date.”
With an impressively swift turnaround, released just nine months after the UK went into COVID-19 lockdown, Locked Down could have been an excellent observed comedy about the shared experiences of the preceding year but is undone by a weak script and an unnecessary and contrived “heist”. The focus on a recently separated couple provides an added layer of hostility to an already strained environment, with Doug Liman making some creative visual choices like deliberately poor framing to reflect off-centre webcams and leaning into video freezes and lag. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as the furloughed and depressed Paxton is the film’s highlight, coping poorly with the breakup yet witty and theatrical as he orates poetry to his neighbours. The script’s observations are more blunt than profound (“people like me who have spent some time in real prison are thriving in this new reality”) and its privileged tone can become unpleasant at times. As its focus shifts to opportunistic theft, Locked Down‘s relatability and competence plummet further.
“You go ahead and do what you want. Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.”
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film about a Korean immigrant family setting up a farm in Arkansas is light on plot and heavy on character interaction, with the success of the farm itself less important than the fate of the family. The initial tension comes from Jacob’s decision to uproot a stable but stagnant life in California for risk that provides the possibility of growth and, although our initial impression of his wife Monica is unsupportive, the film is unusually even-handed in its portrayal of the couple. The arrival of grandmother Soonja seems like it will provide a one-note antagonistic presence, but she turns out to Minari‘s most multifaceted and fascinating character, portrayed expertly by Korean cinema veteran Yuh-Jung Youn as she shifts between childishly churlish and deeply caring. Steven Yeun, best known from The Walking Dead, is a nominal lead but this is really an ensemble cast, with the entire family being nuanced and fleshed out with sufficient screen time save for the daughter. Aside from half the dialogue being in Korean, there is little racial or cultural focus to Minari — perhaps its most universal immigrant experience is that the parents remain isolated, struggling to form deep relationships outside of the family unit, despite this particular Arkansas community being welcoming. As an amalgamation of Chung’s childhood memories, Minari may not show us anything particularly new but, in depicting the quiet struggle of industrious immigrants, it is both beautiful and timely in an environment of backlash to immigration.
“It’s like I was playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”
Mike Nichols’ sophomore film was once a coming-of-age classic, but The Graduate has not aged particularly well. The first act still works, with Dustin Hoffman portraying Benjamin’s post-graduation malaise and reluctance to engage in the adult world; his awkward fumbling through an affair is juxtaposed with Anne Bancroft’s persistent and assured Mrs Robinson. However, his subsequent relationship with her daughter lacks any genuine connection, predominantly due to shallow writing that provides neither character with much depth; that either of them feels strongly enough to act as they do in the latter half of the film stretches credulity. Nichols’ direction is a mixed bag, displaying creative transitions between shots but indulging in visual metaphors that are laughably on the nose. The Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack provides a memorable and consistent tone, but repeated reuse of the same three songs becomes tedious, and does not always suit the scene. The Graduate never falls apart entirely and still earns some wry laughter in its later acts, but its trajectory is certainly downward trending.
“Once more into the fray. Into the last good fight I’ll ever know. Live and die on this day. Live and die on this day.”
Joe Carnahan’s survival thriller falls squarely into the grizzled man versus nature blueprint, Liam Neeson leading a handful of oil workers through the Alaskan wilderness as they are stalked by a pack of wolves. The Grey explores the human reaction to becoming prey, fear of the wolves being as dangerous to the group as the wolves themselves. The action is sparing, with suspense crafted more through the push and pull of threat and stand-off, fire being the group’s strongest tool both as a defence and to stave off the freezing temperatures. Whilst it may lack the audaciously complex cinematography of Iñárritu’s The Revenant, there is still a sense of beauty and grandeur to the vast and desolate snow-covered landscape. Only a few characters are developed during the film’s quieter moments, most notably Frank Grillo’s Diaz, who initially seems a stereotypical contrarian antagonist. The Grey‘s abrupt ending will frustrate some viewers though it is what I anticipated and, I think, what works best for the film; a few seconds of post-credits footage offer slightly more certainty for those who require it.
“You know, lost souls are not that different from those in the zone. The zone is enjoyable, but when that joy becomes an obsession, one becomes disconnected from life.”
Pixar’s most experimental film since Wall-E, Soul is also one of its best even though I wish its focus had been slightly different. Pete Doctor has directed Pixar’s most creatively original films: Inside Out, Up and Monsters, Inc. (which for me remains the studio’s pinnacle). As in Up, he uses a masterclass opening sequence designed to communicate a single concept: the transportative power of music. Truly feeling Joe’s consciousness melt away in playing improvisational jazz is astounding. Soul‘s grander ambitions come from the non-musical meaning of its title: exploring the essence of what makes us human and individual. I am unsurprisingly in favour of allowing children to grapple with metaphysical concepts, and they are presented here with wondrous simplicity. It won’t be as outright entertaining as typical family fare, but it will definitely seed ideas and questions. The representation of pre-and-post-life in an abstract way — divorced from any religious angle — becomes somewhat sanitised, and its non-literal depiction more difficult to explain, though children capable of understanding Inside Out‘s conceptual take on emotions should be equally able to grasp Soul. So, whilst the richness of jazz may be merely the vehicle used for Soul‘s true intentions, the result is both unusual and impressive.
Two years before directing Halloween, John Carpenter made his name with the suspenseful Assault on Precinct 13 in which a handful of cops and criminals are forced to work together to defend a defunct L.A. police station under siege by a gang. The initial setup of lawmen under siege and waiting for rescue, is reminiscent of Rio Bravo, but the focus here is solely on tension rather than interpersonal dynamics: the characters are all mere sketches, save perhaps Darwin Joston’s cunning yet charming death row inmate, Napoleon Wilson. The sinister, voiceless gang members serve more as a traditional cinematic monster than human antagonists, a relentless and seemingly infinite menace like Romero’s zombie horde. Above all, Carpenter’s mesmerisingly minimalist electronic score (using a single synthesizer) serves to elevate the oppressive atmosphere and one can easily hear its direct influence on Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy score 30 years later.
“I start, and when the vision’s flown, I weep and I am all alone.”
Although renowned in the early 19th Century, fossil hunter Mary Anning does not receive the celebration she deserves. Ammonite addresses this, but focuses on her later life through the lens of an entirely speculative relationship. Whilst this feels strange for a real figure, the film uses her character to present an excellent portrayal of repression, isolation and desire. Kate Winslet has shown her preference for naturalistic roles over the glamorous, and that is immediately evident as Anning claws through mud on the grey beaches of Lyme Regis. This contrasts with the high society convalescing young wife played delicately by Saoirse Ronan, impulsive and naïve. When the women’s interest in one another becomes physical, there is a palpable sense of desperation to escape the isolation of their respective lives. Indeed, the most heartbreaking moments of Ammonite come not when Anning is denied happiness, but when we see her own repression pushes her to choose isolation — focusing on her work and spending her time by the sea, the white noise of the waves drowning out the part of her life she knows she is denying.