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Posts Tagged ‘Timothee Chalamet’

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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I know one should judge a movie on its own quality, rather than that of its publicity material, but even so: something about the blurb promoting Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on the local multiplex website smells awfully whiffy to me. ‘Greta Gerwig has crafted a Little Women that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and… is both timeless and timely.’ Well, that ‘timeless and timely’ line must be a good one, because I used something similar myself a couple of years ago, but – ‘crafted’? Honestly? I know this is a prestige movie gunning for gongs – it’s that time of year – but the implication seems to be that while most of those non-award-contender films were just slapped together out of spit and bubblegum, Gerwig emerged, exhausted, from a shed, having painstakingly ‘crafted’ her movie single-handed, possibly using a chisel.

Well, you’re not responsible for what people write about you, so I should probably move on from reviewing a website advertising the movie and consider the film itself. This is, of course, an adaptation of Louisa M Alcott’s classic and much-loved (not to mention much adapted) novel of the same name, a coming of age story set in the USA in the 19th century. It mostly concerns the siblings of one not-especially-well-off family living in Massachusetts: Meg, Amy, Little Jo and Hoss.

The novel was originally published in two parts (under different titles in the UK), but Gerwig (scripting as well as directing) has opted to tell the story out of chronological order. Thus it does take a little while for the shape of the story to become apparent, to say nothing of the difficulties one is presented with when trying to recap the plot.

So: the earlier part of the story is set during the American Civil War, with the father of the family absent and everyone else struggling to make ends meet. As noted, the March family are not exactly rolling in dough, and so it is important that at least one daughter makes a good marriage. But who is it to be? Eldest sibling Meg (Emma Watson), who seems to want to be an actress? Second daughter Jo (Saoirse Ronan), whose mind is always fixed upon her writing? What about Amy (Florence Pugh) an artistically gifted but temperamental and sometimes difficult girl? Who will catch the eye of the somewhat feckless but wealthy boy next door (Timothee Chalamet)? Anyway, none of the girls seems to impress the family’s stern old matriarch (Meryl Streep)… (I presume Streep is in the role that Lorne Greene used to play in the TV series, though I could be wrong.)

Well, this may be a beloved piece of literature, but it’s also one aimed at young American girls, so I must confess to being almost wholly unfamiliar with it. If I wasn’t the kind of person who goes to the cinema as a matter of habit, then there’s a good chance I probably wouldn’t have seen this at all – hang on, though, perhaps that’s not entirely true. This is a Greta Gerwig film, after all, and while I am just as happy to see a movie with her as by her, I have been following her career with interest for years now. The same is true of Florence Pugh.

I am happy to report that neither of them have proved my faith to be unfounded. I will admit to feeling a bit restless during the opening stages of the film, especially before the structure of the thing became properly apparent, but in the end it becomes a richly absorbing and impressive film: the staging is excellent, the ensemble playing is also very strong, and I did find the story genuinely touching in places. I get the sense that the film has been structured to retain the bits that people who have read the novel remember – there is some significant breakfast-donating, book-burning and hair-cutting, amongst other things – but Gerwig has structured the script with great intelligence and subtlety, creating resonances between scenes set years apart (presumably in different volumes of the book). The contrast between the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the girls’ childhood home and the somewhat bleaker tone of later years is also very well achieved.

With the father of the family absent for much of the film and Chalamet playing a slightly ambiguous character – charming, but also quite callow – this is, obviously, a female-dominated film. I sense that we are in for a lot of these over the next few weeks, for the great beast of capitalism has scented there is money to be made from the MeToo movement, gobbled it up, and is now in the process of selling it back to people in carefully packaged chunks. I really feared that Little Women would likewise end up as a piece of thudding agitprop – its own trailer is big on stressing that it is about how the March sisters are individuals with their own talents and dreams, rather than just wives and mothers in waiting – but once again Gerwig proves she is smarter than this.

There are certainly scenes which feel – how should one put this? – proto-feminist, or even feminist full-stop – the economic importance of marriage to women of this period is made quite clear, for instance. But these are not laboured and do seem to fit quite naturally within the narrative. There is also a moment where Emma Watson’s character is permitted to say that she does actually want to get married and have children, and that this is a perfectly valid life goal. Nevertheless, much of the film is about Jo’s desire to stay in control of her own life, which basically means remaining single. How, then, to contrive a happy climax to the movie, especially when the book does end with Jo getting spliced? The script manages to negotiate its way around this with some deftness and perhaps even a little impudence.

This is a solid and impressive movie, and very enjoyable. Ronan is customarily good, but she is at least matched by Pugh, who has a rather trickier role to contend with. None of the performances are what you would call weak, though. In the end it is Greta Gerwig’s script and direction which really make the movie what it is: charming and pleasant, but not without serious and moving moments, and perhaps even the odd life lesson. Little Women may do very well when the awards season properly gets going: I would not object if it did.

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