Another batch of film reviews. After watching these rot for some time, let’s try limiting ourselves to five at a time, shall we?
Chambre 212 / On a Magical Night
Benjamin Biolay’s resemblance to Benicio del Toro is pretty disconcerting the first time that I encountered it, and it’s still a little odd for me here, even if it’s not quite as sharp. That aside, it’s quite an odd films; partly as a result of its full-on commitment to non-linear storytelling, but mostly through having older and younger versions of characters interacting with one another.
It kicks off with a rather uninteresting premise - comfortably well-off Parisian couple uncover infidelity that undercuts their marriage - quickly spins off into the surreal as Maria visits and is visited by a succession of her lovers who she has taken during their twenty years together; meanwhile, Richard (played by the aforementioned Biolay) departs to the realms of the life he might have had, if the teenage relationship with his piano teacher had proceeded along the lines it had imagined.
Throughout the film, both the principal characters and significant secondary criss-cross, with the younger ones seeing the future, the elders skipping back to their youth, and Richard and Maria seeing one another’s alternate reality; imaginary children appear and become dolls or real; we go to the seaside and back to Paris; it’s ultimately a satisfying, hallucinatory exploration of regrets and might-have-beens and the paths taken.
Bittersweet interwoven stories beginning with a tragedy: an stabbing outside an apartment. The film tracks back through a set of individual stories that are ultimately braided together, often seemingly light but more often that not quickly turning out to be difficult; Kristen Stewart does a solid turn amongst the cast.
I enjoyed this as a satisfying film with a certain natural, authentic air to it - some parts are unpolished, but for me this only lends to the air of verisimilitude.
I was nervous about this, but ended up being pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It doesn’t exceed the original Matrix, surprising no-one, but I enjoyed it more than the second and third (for the record, I think Reloaded was actually a good film, but its reputation suffered because the tight coupling with Revolutions left it being seen in the light of the flaws of the latter).
I realise that this opinion runs counter to “screeching on the Internet”, but since much of that screeching also accuses the film of being “too woke” as though the first three were somehow um, completely right-wing screeds or something, I think we can safely dismiss that as the opinions of cretins.
Things that I particularly enjoyed were the director simply breaking the fourth wall about her dissatisfaction at having been forced into a fourth film by ridiculing how Warner Brothers (mis)manages its film studio; the cast of new characters were generally delightful; the angry old man ramblings of The Merovingian pretty much accurately pre-empt a large chunk of the complaints about the film in particular, as well as poking fun at the general level of “bloody millennials” whinging that dominates the press.
The actions sequences, while not really lifting the bar in the way that the first film did, were perfectly delightful, and the film offers a nice blend of a little bit to think about, a bunch of spectacle, and generally makes the best of a bad starting point. Great fun.
One of the most significant choices in adapting books to film is what to leave out. No film - no series of films - can bring in everything that’s in even a moderately long book, so deciding what of the book you will represent, and hence what you will keep and what you will cut, is the most critical choice that is made.
With Dune this only gets more difficult: the original is not merely long, it is tremendously complicated and makes heavy use of being long-form fiction: each chapter opens with snippets of in-universe writing, usually affecting the point of view of a future historian looking back on the present described by the book itself; there are many chapters dominated by the thoughts of the characters in them; and the themes are diverse and rich and complicated, roaming over ideas of planet-wide ecological manipulation, colonialism, the entwining of culture, faith, and politics.
As a film, Dune already has a lot of strengths: Villeneuve has a talent for spectacle, and he has that on full display here. The scale of everything is tremendous, capturing the vastness that Herbert described in his novel. He wisely follows many of the visual design choices from David Lynch’s 80s film which, while flawed, often created perfect images of the world.
In spite of that richness, the film doesn’t feel busy: Villneuve’s biggest strength here is that he’s happy to let his actors, well, act. The story is expressed as often through their actions and expressions, large and small, as through words, and it leaves a spare, open feel to the film; a couple of specific examples that come to mind:
- Early on Halleck and Paul are practising their fighting skills. Gurney is going so hard that, in the book, Paul wonders to himself if Gurney has been turned by an enemy and is actually going to kill him. Villeneuve doesn’t have this thought as exposition; rather, there’s a moment of doubt and fear in Paul’s face during one of their exchanges. Perhaps you’re a book reader and notice this, and make the connection. Perhaps you don’t. Perhaps you didn’t read the book, but read Paul’s face. Villneuve is happy to trust you, the viewer, rather than to load in another thirty seconds of dialogue explaining Paul’s fears.
- When the Atreides arrive on Arrakis they’re greeted by their strategist and spymaster, Thufir Hawat: Paul rushes to embrace him; Leto shakes his hand; Gurney touches him. He is formal with Leto and Gurney, but maintains physical contact. With Jessica, though, there is no contact, only a formal greeting. Something is up, and Villeneuve has laid a breadcrumb for Hawat’s story in the second film. Again, the actors are left to act, not merely expound words from a page, and the audience is trusted to understand what is going on.
This is all excellent, but it’s the choices of what to adapt where it really shines, for me. At its core, Dune the novel has two primary stories: in the first, we have the machinations of the great powers of an interstellar empire as they jockey for power, fuelled by everything from their petty near-term concerns, through centuries of historical bitterness, to millenia-spanning long-term plans to shape the future; in the second, we have the concerns of the colonised people of Arrakis, their hunger for freedom, their plans to build a world that will leave their distant descendants with a life of comfort rather than hardship. Each one of those stories is lush, complex, and well-realised, but the enduring special character of Dune is not in the first story: there are many, many sci-fi stories of the Great Men (and, occassionally, great women) of great houses or empires or nations plotting and scheming, of the battles they orchestrate, of their rationales, of how they turn the faith of others to their own ends, and their musing on the nature of greatness or leadership or what-have-you. Dune’s first storyline is a fine example of that, but it’s not particularly unusual now, and it wasn’t then.
What was very different about Dune when it was written - and, sadly, is still fairly unusual today - is the second story: that is the story of the Fremen, long colonised and beaten down; their own aspiration, for the painstaking transformation of a desert world into a verdant planet pushed aside because the resources of the world are too important to the invaders. Their hopes, their culture, their faith have all been forged in a brutal environment that allows for no errors. Paul’s father wants them to be a trusted vassal of House Atreides: his intentions are good, but he’s seeing them in the way that the British saw (for example) the Sikhs. Their dreams and aspirations will have the room to breath so long as they do not interfere with Atreides responsibilities to the Empire; Leto wants to respect and understand their customs, but only so far as they don’t challenge the supremecy of his own. Paul, on the other hand, embraces them, something that we see begin as he joins Stilgar’s people, and a sharp divergance both from his father.
For me that’s the great strength of the film: it chooses the threads of the story that are most unique, and focuses the limited screen time on them. Hopefully that continues with the second.
No Time to Die
The final film for Daniel Craig’s time as Bond, it (rather remarkably) sees him become the oldest actor to play Bond, as unlikely as that seems; it also steps back from the excessively comical elements that rather marred the previous entry in the series. Opening, not with Bond, but the childhood of Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swan and then cutting to Bond’s (short-lived) retirement and happiness in the present it kicks off the chance to meet a new 007, but most importantly to provide a satisfying end to Craig’s time as Bond, rounding the whole thing out with a conclusion which ultimately makes sense for this take on the character.
A fine addition to the series, and an excellent way to round out this version of Bond.