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Frank Herbert’s Dune is one of my very favorite novels.  I adore it and have read it many times.  (Each time I read it, I feel like I inch closer to full comprehension.)  I have a soft spot in my heart for David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune; it’s a terrible movie, but I still find quite a lot to enjoy.  I am an unabashed fan of John Harrison’s three-part Dune adaptation for the Sci-Fi channel from 2000, as well as the 2003 follow-up Children of Dune.  Some of the visual effects from those mini-series haven’t aged well, but I think the cast in both mini-series is fantastic, there’s lots of wonderfully weird design work, and most of all they approached the adaptations with seriousness and great reverence for Frank Herbert’s work.  But while I love those previous efforts, I still felt that a definitive, fully satisfying adaptation of Dune had not yet been achieved.  To say that I was excited when I heard that Denis Villeneuve would be adapting Dune for the big screen would be an enormous understatement.  I am a huge fan of Mr. Villeneuve’s previous two gorgeous sci-fi films, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and I thought he was the perfect choice to tackle Frank Herbert’s epic.

Mr. Villeneuve and his team did not disappoint.  Dune Part One is a masterpiece.  It is a magnificent piece of work.  It is stunningly gorgeous.  The cast is extraordinary.  The film digs deep into Frank Herbert’s universe; they have produced a remarkably faithful adaptation that is able to respect the richness of the world of Dune while also compressing and simplifying the story and the vast cast of characters to present it all in a way that is clear and easy to follow.  The film is long, but it is masterfully paced and never lags.  I was hooked in right from the first frame and on to the last.  I could have easily watched three more hours of Dune immediately.  Do I really have to wait years for the second half of the story???

(I really wonder how general audiences will respond when they get to the end of this film.  It doesn’t end on a “dun-dun-dun” cliffhanger, but the we’re clearly leaving off in the middle of the story.  It’s very similar to the end of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring film…)

(Update: Dune Part Two was green-lit yesterday, with a release date of October 2023.  I’ll be very impressed if they’re really able to get that second film into theaters in just two years!  I hope that happens.  While I applaud and support to split this adaptation of Dune into two films — … [continued]

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Fifty Years of 007: Josh Reviews Skyfall

Well, after an unexpectedly lengthy hiatus, James Bond has returned, just in time for his fiftieth anniversary.  To the pleasure and relief of fans of Bond, James Bond, Skyfall is evidence that the redoubtable secret agent (and his franchise) has plenty of gas left in the ol’ Aston Martin tank, though I must confess that this is the second Bond film in a row that doesn’t quite succeed at living up to the promise suggested by Casino Royale.

NOTE: This is a hard film to write about while avoiding spoilers.  I will avoid ruining any of the big plot twists, but I would nonetheless advise not reading this review until you’ve seen the film.

The Opening/The Music: Skyfall’s opening sequence is thrilling, surely ranking amongst one of the very best Bond opening sequences. It’s a spectacular extended chase sequence, from car to motorcycle to train and beyond. (It’s a far more coherent action sequence that Quantum of Solace’s thrilling but hard to follow opening car chase.)  It’s a tremendous, thrilling opening, and I was totally hooked in. But thing got a little shaky as soon as Adele’s theme song began, and for much of the next hour I was a little worried about how things were going.  More on that in a few minutes.  I am lukewarm on Adele’s theme song.  It’s fun to have a Bond song once again using the same title as the film (after two films in a row in which the songs had different titles than the film, a divergence from the standard Bond-movie procedure), though trying to make a song based on the bizarre title of Skyfall, without spoiling the terms’ meaning in the film, is a task in which Adele and her team do not quite succeed.  Also, I tend to prefer my Bond songs to have a bit more of a propulsive beat, and to be a bit more hummable.

The bad: After the terrific opening sequence, the film hits the brakes and it takes a good long while, in my opinion, to really get going again.  The first hour is very hit and miss.  The film looks gorgeous with some truly stunning, cleverly designed sequences.  Bond’s fight with an assassin atop a Shanghai skyscraper, bathed in the reflection of neon lights, is particularly notable.  But I found myself filled with questions as to the unfolding story.  All sorts of little plot points niggled at me.  Why the hell did Bond keep those bullet fragments in his arm all that time?  Why perform surgery on himself when hes right in the middle of MI6, with plenty of trained medics all around him?  Wouldn’t that only further damage the usefulness of … [continued]

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Special ADVANCE REVIEW of the New James Bond film: Skyfall!

Guest-blogger Josh Lawrence lives in London, where the latest James Bond film Skyfall has already been released.  Josh submitted an advance review of Quantum of Solace back in 2008, and was kind enough this morning to send in his thoughts on Skyfall!  My own review will be up next week, after I see the film this weekend…  Take it away, Josh…

Skyfall, the 23rd installment of the Bond franchise, is an enjoyable action-packed movie that nonetheless will leave the avid Bond fan a bit disappointed.

After a rather tepid mission in Quantum of Solace, Bond is back to the darker, broodier character introduced in Casino Royale. But instead of the newly-minted “00” agent humbled and hardened by the loss of the love of his life, this time around Bond’s dark attitude stems from anger at M.i.6. for interfering with his current mission and, the movie hints, from some deeper secret.  Needless to say, this deep secret is connected to “Skyfall” — how else could one explain such a bizarre title.

For the old-school Bond fan, the movie follows a very familiar trope: Bond saves the world from say nuclear disaster—and is clearly the only agent capable of doing so—but M and his or her cohort and Q all treat Bond like some sort of a rakish self-centered idiot who can’t be trusted to do anything right.  Maybe it would be better for Bond to take a break and recover from his shoulder injury, his superiors suggest, as he is probably not fit for service?  Bond agrees but of course goes rogue — this time it’s personal — identifies the criminal gang behind the next threat, gets some grudging support from key people at headquarters, and then is welcomed back into the fold when he saves the day.

This time around the villain does not have a diabolical plot to radiate the gold supply or give racing horses steroids (phew!), but predictably has spent years developing a needlessly elaborate form of revenge for his grudge.  The story strains to make the point that non-state actors are the real risk in the modern world, and that the cloak-and-dagger services (and “00” agents specifically) are still relevant.

Of course the bigger challenge is in making the Bond films continue to be relevant, and this is where the movie was less successful.  As with Casino Royale, this movie owes a lot to the Bourne movies for its big action scenes, though director Sam Mendes is not as adept at using close-action cameras that lent Casino so much grit and brutalism.

The central problem is that the plot does not stand alone, or rather, could only be credible as a plot … [continued]

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From Barcelona to Megiddo: Vicky Christina Barcelona, Towelhead, and Religulous reviewed!

Vicky Christina Barcelona — Yes, like most of you I prefer Woody Allen’s “earlier, funnier” works.  But this is, I think, one of the strongest movies that Woody has written & directed in the last decade and a half.  Vicky Christina Barcelona follows two girls, Vicky (Rebecca Hall, who must have felt bad at being left off all the posters) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) on a summer holiday in Spain.  The girls are close friends but are very different in nature: Vicky is practical and responsible, while Christina is more spontaneous and emotional.  Their lives quickly become entwined with that of strapping Spanish artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz).

While Johansson has appeared in several recent Woody Allen films, Hall, Bardem and Cruz are all welcome additions to Woody’s repertoire of actors.  Bardem and Cruz, in particular, bring an energy that’s been missing from many of Mr. Allen’s recent works.  Indeed, they both play characters (and sympathetic characters, at that) that are quite different from the more intellectual romantic leads that characterize Woody Allen movies.  There isn’t really an Alvy Singer to be found here.  (The closest approximation would be Vicky’s fiancee Doug, who is depicted not as a hero but as someone rather boring and close-minded.)  While we’re blessed to have a new Woody Allen film almost once a year, sometimes his films can seem to blend together.  (For instance, while many loved Match Point, I couldn’t stop comparing it to what I saw as the similar but superior earlier film, Crimes and Misdemeanors.)  But Vicky Christina Barcelona is quite a unique creation, unlike any previous Woody Allen film, and I really enjoy it for that.

It’s not perfect.  I didn’t care too much for the use of narration throughout the film, which seemed in many cases to spell out for the audience events and motivations that could more easily and elegantly been shown to us through the action.  And as with most stories of love triangles (or, in this case, a love rectangle), I found the set-up to be of more interest than the resolution.  But still, this is a strong new work from Woody Allen that I recommend.

Towelhead — I adore American Beauty, so when I heard that Alan Ball (the author of that film), had a new movie that he was writing and, for the first time, directing, I was immediately interested.  Towelhead tells the story of Jasira (Summer Bishil), a 13 year-old Arab-American girl.  At the start of the film, Jasira’s mother (Maria Bello) sends her to Houston, Texas, to live with her father Rifat (Peter Marcdissi), a strict man of Lebanese descent.  With the … [continued]