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Posts Tagged ‘Dave Bautista’

The buzz has been building around Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune for some time now, even taking into account the fact that this is yet another of 2020’s big films which finds itself emerging into the world rather later than originally intended. This is no doubt partly because Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 have given Villeneuve a claim to the title of the most important science-fiction film director working in the world today, but also because, well, it’s Dune, isn’t it?

If you know your science fiction history, Dune isn’t just one of those things which dominates the landscape, in many respects it is much of the landscape. The DNA of the book, and of the early attempts to film it, have been filtering into the culture for decades now, all without a genuinely satisfying screen adaptation ever being forthcoming. The TV miniseries from twenty years ago is now largely forgotten, while the 1984 David Lynch film, though retaining a cult following, is at best a horribly flawed and deeply confused take on the material.

Comparisons with The Lord of the Rings follow Dune around like seagulls after a trawler, but it’s easy to see why Villeneuve and his team decided the book could only be done proper justice as a series of films, rather than a single movie. Hence (although not billed or advertised as such) the new film is essentially Dune: Part One.

The story unfurls itself on a suitably epic scale, although it is ambitiously thin on the kind of non-diegetic exposition that has become such a cliché of this kind of film – there is no opening crawl, or prefatory monologue, or even much in the way of captions explaining where the various scenes are taking place. We are often in the distant future, when the known universe has reverted to a form of techno-feudalism and vicious and bloody galactic politics occupies the various Great Houses and the organisations that connect them.

As the film opens, the House of Atreides, who seem to be a generally benevolent lot, have just been assigned the job of overseeing the desert planet Arrakis, source of the most important substance in the universe – a psychedelic spice which facilitates interstellar travel and thus allows the empire to function. Control of Arrakis grants immense power and wealth, but are the Atreides being handed a golden opportunity or a poisoned chalice? Certainly, the arch-enemies they are displacing, the brutal House of Harkonnen, don’t seem that worried…

Nevertheless, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees this as an opportunity, for Arrakis is also home to fierce native warrior culture, the Fremen, who he is keen to make an alliance with. His son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is also excited to visit this new world, partly because he is having strange precognitive dream concerning the place. Paul is disturbed to learn that he is the product of generations of selective breeding to produce a superhuman with immense psionic powers, and that the people of Arrakis have been primed to recognise him as their long-awaited messiah or Mahdi – but is this a destiny he is prepared to accept?

The challenge in adapting Dune for other media is basically one of balance: the richness of the setting is fundamental to the novel, but it’s how one retains this without swamping the story so it grinds to a halt or becomes unintelligible. The decision to chop Dune in half for the new film is probably a good one (always assuming the concluding movie gets the green light): the narrative gets room to breathe, retaining all the key incidents of the story, while at least a sense of the detail and texture of the wider universe is still communicated.

Of course, something’s still got to give, and one does receive only a vague impression of some elements of the background. There are a lot of characters, and some of them are in the film only quite briefly: Dave Bautista, for instance, is near the top of the bill as Count Rabban, but probably only on screen for less than ten minutes. The same is true of many others; the film is more about striking miniatures than in-depth characterisations, though Jason Momoa is more prominent than one might expect as the Atreides warrior Duncan Idaho and the same is true of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes (yes, the Progressive Agenda Committee have had a word).

The whole film feels like it’s operating on a greater-than-human scale, anyway: there are immense vistas, ships the size of small cities hanging in the sky, colossal sandworms lurking under the surface of the deserts, and more. As a spectacle it is never less than impressive, the visuals backed up by an extraordinary score from Hans Zimmer, almost more like musique concrete in places than a conventional piece of orchestration (that said, the soundtrack album also contains a Pink Floyd cover, which can’t be a coincidence considering that over forty years ago the band were on board to provide the music for an earlier attempt at the novel).

There’s a huge amount to admire about Dune, but perhaps that’s the problem with the film – it’s a film which impresses and provokes admiration, but never really excitement or delight.  Frank Herbert himself thought he had identified fourteen separate clear points of identity between Dune and George Lucas’ own tale of a young man on a remote desert planet discovering his own mystic heritage and battling the forces of a corrupt imperium, but this film doesn’t have the same kind of swashbuckling, eye-catching verve: it’s much less a piece of pulpy space opera. Villeneuve works so hard to keep the story focused, relevant to contemporary concerns, and naturalistic that the sense of wonder which is a central part of the appeal of science fiction is never quite there when you’d expect it to be.

Nevertheless, this is a film which easily eclipses its predecessors and is likely to define this story in the minds of generations to come – especially if the concluding episode, which we are assured is almost a done deal, matches the virtuosity of this one. I am very curious to see how Villeneuve handles some of the more metaphysical aspects of the story, and the epic spectacle which to some extent is only promised at here. Perhaps no movie of Dune could ever really live up to expectations, but this one comes impressively close.

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If I cast my mind back into the dimmest recesses of history – we’re talking years and years ago, now – there was a time when I occasionally said something nice about Zack Snyder or one of his films. We’re talking the mid-to-late years of the last but one decade – are we really going to call it the noughties? Is that the best we can manage? – obviously, before his collision with the DC comics series movie franchise. Up to a point, I rather liked his version of Dawn of the Dead, and had a good time in 300 and Watchmen, as well. (Watchmen probably got him the DC gig, although the minds responsible don’t seem to have twigged that Moore and Gibbons’ masterpiece has an utterly different sensibility and tone to a conventional superhero film.)

So, always with the proviso that it doesn’t feature any superheroes, I should perhaps be cautiously hopeful about a new Snyder project, even if it is a Netflix original (the company continues to splash out vast sums on these big productions, but the people running it are apparently confident the massive debts incurred are manageable). It’s still not exactly what you’d call a step into bold new territory from the director, as it’s basically just another zombie movie, albeit on the kind of scale that George A Romero could only have dreamt of.

The premise of Army of the Dead (very nearly a fridge title) is that a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas has led to the entire city being walled off with the undead left inside to do whatever zombies do when there’s no-one around to eat. Obviously, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and so – in a blackly comic touch – the government is planning to nuke the city on the Fourth of July and thus permanently resolve the situation.

This doesn’t really affect ex-special forces hard-nut and aspiring short-order cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), until a slimy casino owner approaches him with a deal: in a vault underneath one of the hotels is $200 million in cash. If Ward leads a team into the city, cracks the safe, and returns with the money, he can have a quarter of it to distribute however he sees fit. Is he interested?

Well, it would be a much, much shorter movie if he wasn’t. The crew Ward assembles includes various other tough guys and oddballs, with Matthias Schweighofer as a safecracker, Tig Notaro as a helicopter pilot, and Nora Amezeder as a scout and zombie expert. There’s also a clearly dodgy character in the employ of the slimy casino owner, and – for only slightly contrived reasons – Ella Purnell as Ward’s petite and wide-eyed young daughter (who must take after her mother).

So in they all go, and you can probably guess what takes up most of the rest of the movie – lots of sneaking about with the occasional interlude of extreme violence, revelations, double-crosses, desperate sacrifices, and so on. It’s an action movie at least as much as a horror film, and a stupendously violent one – although there are also elements of a heist film in the mix, obviously, and the plot has very obvious echoes of Aliens in a few places, too.

Zack Snyder is very good at orchestrating this sort of thing. (Hey, there you go: an unqualified piece of praise for Zack Snyder.) Some people have called the film humourless, but I’m not sure I’d agree: there’s a definite element of black comedy to the initial scenes of Las Vegas being over-run by zombie showgirls and Elvis impersonators, and the whole thing has a kind of tongue-in-cheek comic book sensibility to it. If anything, it’s attempts to give the film more of a serious emotional core which are less successful, and this may be down to the casting as much as anything else.

Most of the scenes in question feature Ella Purnell, who is clearly an able young actress, and Dave Bautista, who is a hulking ex-wrestler. (I think Bautista comfortably claims the #3 spot on the current Top Movie Hulks list, after genial Dwayne and Vin.) Bautista is very good in the scenes requiring him to mete out carnage to the undead, but less effective when it comes to delivering a dramatic performance. He’s not actively bad. But it’s fair to say that he is not a revelation in this role, and the scenes between him and Purnell feel underpowered as a result.

But you could also argue this is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle for Bautista, and there are certainly a lot of characters in the mix. Everything present in Army of the Dead is here in large quantities: lots of characters, lots of zombies, lots of gore, lots of money. The movie ends up being a hefty two-and-a-half-hours long as a result – at one point I checked how long was left, assuming the thing was virtually over, and found there were nearly twenty minutes left to run – with a lavish prologue depicting how the zombie outbreak got started, and a fairly elaborate epilogue potentially setting up a sequel. I’m not sure these are really needed; the film is probably about forty minutes too long considering it’s a zombie action movie.

Because in the end that’s really all it is. It’s a lavish and technically very accomplished production – apparently one of the more prominent actors got Weinsteined after filming had concluded and was digitally replaced in post-production, and you genuinely cannot tell – and, you know, it has epic spectacle to offer and all that. (Not to mention a zombified version of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers.) But while it’s obviously inspired by a George Romero movie, it’s very hard to see any sign of the big ideas about society or culture that are such a key element of his best films. This is just rock ‘n’ roll, crash-bang-wallop stuff, with a big dollop of calculated nastiness added to the mixture. It’s undeniably an entertaining film, if zombie action horror is your cup of tea, and less actively exasperating than most of the things Snyder has directed in the last decade. But despite all of this it’s essentially just an exploitation B-movie blown up to ludicrous proportions, and ultimately vacuous.

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It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

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Any gambler, whether professional or recreational, would be in awe of the run of luck enjoyed by Marvel Studios since 2008. These people have released film after film in the notoriously unpredictable superhero genre, only to be met with ever-increasing popularity and financial reward. They have attempted what looked like the impossible, in the form of a fully-connected, open-ended series-of-series, and not only seen it work, but expand to include a growing number of TV programmes and other spin-offs. You get the impression, almost, that the top people at Marvel have become intent on pushing their luck to see just how far it will go.

This could be one reason why, with relatively major characters like Doctor Strange still untapped, Marvel have chosen to make their latest original release an adaptation of an obscure comic book featuring a selection of characters virtually unknown to anyone but dedicated fans of the genre. The result is Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (just to compound the boldness of this gamble, Gunn is the director of the bravura-icky horror film Slither and the deeply twisted superhero satire Super).

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Central to the action is Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), who was abducted from Earth as a child in the late 1980s and who has risen to become a minor-league space pirate in a wild and wacky cosmos. A mysterious orb comes into Peter’s possession, which is his bad luck as it is also being sought by powerful cosmic forces: principally the genocidal alien warlord Ronan (Lee Pace), a sometime ally of Thanos (the behind-the-scenes villain in The Avengers). Peter finds himself pursued by Ronan’s renegade enforcer Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the unlikely bounty-hunting duo of uplifted procyonid Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and tree of few words Groot (the great Vin Diesel). The four of them are packed off to prison where they make the acquaintance of monomaniacal psychotic Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista).

The ill-matched quintet hit upon a plan to get rich by selling the orb to enigmatic alien the Collector (Benicio del Toro), little realising that Ronan is still in pursuit and plans to use its cosmic powers to devastate a large chunk of the galaxy. Does this disparate band of thieves, killers, lunatics and imbeciles have it in them to actually become heroes…?

It is quite difficult to overstate just what a departure Guardians of the Galaxy is from the last few Marvel Studios movies. It’s their first non-sequel in three years, for one thing, and there is notably less connective tissue to other projects – much has been made in certain circles of the presence of Josh Brolin as Thanos, but this isn’t much more than a cameo appearance to keep the character on the radar. There are only highly oblique references to other movies in the series and even the obligatory post-credits scene is telling a joke rather than trailing a future film (for all that it features a notable Marvel character unseen in movies for a number of decades).

Then again, perhaps all this is fortuitous from Marvel’s point of view, given that it’s their first release since the departure of Edgar Wright from next year’s Ant-Man amidst what sounds like some bad feeling. There was much speculation that Wright’s vision had been deemed to be too far removed from the house style of the other Marvel films, which some – myself included – took to be confirmation that maintaining the massively profitable Marvel brand had taken precedence over making genuinely interesting, creative films.

Ant-Man is still looking like a troubled project for various reasons, but in its own way Guardians of the Galaxy delivers a mighty rebuttal to any suggestion that Marvel are simply opting to play it safe when it comes to their movies: for, readers, Guardians of the Galaxy is absolutely bonkers.

The film opens with a genuinely moving sequence depicting a youthful Peter’s final moments with his dying mother, before blasting off into space and jumping forward to the present day. Here we see Star-Lord on a hostile alien world, apparently intent on a serious search for something – until he pops on a vintage walkman and proceeds to bust some funky moves across the surface of the planet. This is closely followed by a lavish, FX-slathered action sequence.

This generally sums the film up: moments of apparently sincere emotion jostle with full-blown space opera pyrotechnics and absurd comedy. Gunn has cast Bradley Cooper as a raccoon and Vin Diesel as a tree, and those characters are every bit as preposterous as they sound. As you can probably tell, this is by no means intended to be a serious drama, but it is highly-accomplished entertainment.

The plot itself – a struggle for control of an apocalyptic McGuffin – is not exactly innovative, and you can probably predict the team’s trajectory from misfit outcasts to responsible defenders of liberty yourself. Certainly the climax, which has about three different battles going on simultaneously at one point, is done very much by-the-book for this sort of film and seems in no hurry to conclude itself, and the presence of a remarkable supporting cast (including Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou and Peter Serafinowicz) can only do so much to cover for the familiar nature of much of the story.

What really lifts the film and makes it work, other than its comedic elements and a revelatory, star-making performance from Chris Pratt, is the decision to give Star-Lord his walkman. This allows Gunn to soundtrack the film with a selection of rousing, feel-good tunes from the 70s and early 80s that add tremendously to its cheery, freewheeling atmosphere: Guardians of the Galaxy has a sense of fun about it that’s incredibly infectious and almost impossible to resist.

Once again, Marvel are probably looking at a massive hit (and a sequel has already been announced, to say nothing of various other spin-offs and crossovers) – if these guys had been visiting a casino, they would surely be being politely asked to leave town by now. This is a deeply atypical Marvel movie, and certainly by no means perfect, but as a piece of entertainment it’s incredibly difficult not to like.

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