In Review: 'Dune,' 'The French Dispatch,' 'Halloween Kills'
It's Two-mothée Chalamet week as the young star stars in a half-finished but rousing take on Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic and Wes Anderson's latest. Also: 'Halloween Kills' does not slay.
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Among the singular achievements of Frank Herbert’s Dune is how it reconciles seemingly contradictory elements, including a science-fiction realm that’s otherworldly yet politically and topographically familiar, and a narrative arc that’s both a classic hero’s journey and a pseudo-spiritual hallucinogenic freakout. As I wrote earlier this week, there is no working director whose sensibility covers the spectrum wide enough to be ideally suited for Dune, because makers of large-scale blockbuster epics tend not to be acid-dropping seekers with a flair for the experimental. Short of Bruce Dern guiding George Lucas through an LSD weekend like Peter Fonda in The Trip, any adaptation is bound to break hard in one direction or another—either conventionality or abstraction.
The new version by Denis Villeneuve, the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, bends unsurprisingly toward convention, which is not to say that it isn’t audacious or accomplished, or that it doesn’t have a distinctive power of its own. It should be noted upfront—as the trailers and promotional materials have conspicuously not done—that Dune is only half a movie. So much of what can be said about it now is strictly provisional, based on the confidence instilled by this 155-minute set-up and the hope that market forces dictate whether it ever gets finished. If you’re looking for further evidence of the convergence of film and television, try waiting on news of a film’s continued production as if it were an “on the bubble” network drama awaiting renewal.
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Though it’s missing the mystical kick of Herbert’s novel, and has yet to fill out any allusions to real-world politics or the ambiguous turn its hero’s journey is about to take, Villeneuve’s Dune is still a formidable achievement, allotting itself the time and the scale to tell this story right. Anyone who has read Dune will acknowledge that the first 100 pages or so are a steep learning curve, immersing you in a thicket of galactic intrigue and freaky technologies so dense that the paperback comes with a glossary. The clarity and pace of this adaptation, which Villeneuve co-scripted with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts, may be its most impressive quality. That may sound uninspiring, but both qualities badly stymied David Lynch when he tried to adapt Dune under impossible production constraints. It’s an expert piece of world-building.
Through a combination of simple titles, a couple of segments from “filmbooks,” and occasional narration from Chani (Zendaya), a young woman who will figure more prominently in the theoretical second film, Dune does its best to avoid jamming up the dialogue with expository info-dumps, but there’s some necessary table-setting. In the far-distant future, all power in the known universe revolves around access to a cinnamon-scented spice called melange, which makes interstellar space travel possible, allowing giant ships to zip across galaxies without moving. The spice has a similar effect on humans, expanding consciousness and extending life while seeding a kind of uncanny prescience. Melange can only be harvested on Arrakis, a harsh desert planet that would be virtually uninhabitable even if it weren’t patrolled by giant sandworms under the surface.
After decades of the vile, duplicitous House Harkonnen managing mining operations on Arrakis, the Emperor offers stewardship of the planet to Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac), head of the noble House Atreides, prompting a dangerous change of location from its ocean planet. Though Leto realizes that the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård) and other rivals are likely setting a trap for him, duty compels him to accept the assignment. Meanwhile, his son Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet)—a young, lithe, introspective man of destiny—is starting to come into his own under the guidance of his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), a member of the centuries-old Bene Gesserit sisterhood. Paul has visions of a profound ascension on Arrakis, tied to the Fremen, an oppressed indigenous population that has figured out how to survive on the planet.
Villeneuve isn’t given to whimsy or fun, or even the peculiar touches that Lynch brought to his adaptation, like the heart plugs Baron Harkonnen installs in his slaves or the pug that Duke Leto hauls around like a furry accessory. He directs Dune with the absolute seriousness of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and puts a premium on the scale of Herbert’s story, expressed here through ornate slate-gray ships and immense military formations, and the bone-rattling sounds of space-age industry and a bass-heavy Hans Zimmer score. Whatever sense of giddy adventure might be gleaned from sword fights and close scrapes with the sandworms is muted by a grim sense of purpose. The tradeoff, as in the novel, is a rich mythology that’s treated seriously, with the highest stakes possible. Villeneuve doesn’t show much interest in the Middle Eastern politics that inform the book, much less the jihad that may be in Paul’s future, but cosmic justice is meaningful enough to him to keep from framing it like a lark.
Led by Chalamet, who was practically born in a lab to play Paul, the cast gives Villeneuve’s film the necessary color to pop against his austere backdrops. The livelier the performance, the better: Ferguson brings the right amount of mystery and emotion to Jessica, a woman who loves her son but harbors a conflicting agenda; Charlotte Rampling, though hidden behind a black veil, gives a sinister, imperious authority to her role as a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother; and Javier Bardem as Stilgar, leader of the Fremen, exudes the brazen confidence of a man who belongs on this harsh planet.
Still, there’s an asterisk attached to Dune, because the payoff to its meticulous world-building may never come—and if it does, the second half of Herbert’s book isn’t free of serious dramatic pitfalls, either. For now, this is a rousing work-in-progress, playing to Villeneuve’s strengths for laying out the vivid geography of a locale—those signature overhead shots of his turn Arrakis into a textural wonder—before settling into the fraught lives of those who occupy it. Dune will be terribly damaged without a part two, however: A page-turner with missing pages is not a book. —Scott Tobias
The French Dispatch
Dir. Wes Anderson
Walk down the staircase just inside the entrance of the Chicago Art Institute and you’ll find a space dedicated to the Thorne Rooms, a set of miniature living spaces commissioned by artist Narcissa Niblack Thorne starting in 1932. Born of Thorne’s childhood love of dollhouses, the interiors span centuries and continents, realized in astounding detail at 1:12 scale but left mostly empty, allowing visitors to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of who might live there, what their passions might be, why they chose those tables and chairs as their own, and what might lie just out of view of the window that offers a glimpse of the world beyond the miniatures’ walls.
For a while, the exhibit included a plaque with a quote from a great Thorne admirer, Wes Anderson, taken from a 2014 Fresh Air interview with NPR’s Terry Gross. “It’s usually filled with kids and they look through the glass,” Anderson said, “and they’re just rooms but they’re so intricately detailed. They’re imaginary rooms but they evoke different periods and different places and you kind of go all around the world looking through windows into these tiny rooms. It’s a really fascinating thing. There’s something about miniatures— there’s something kind of mesmerizing about them, for whatever reason.”
Anderson talks as if recognizing a kindred spirit. His love of precisely ornamented environments and formal compositions have defined his work from the start. But Anderson’s work has never been about precision for its own sake. There’s a poignancy to the way he creates spaces that, for all that exacting command, can never provide enough protection from the chaos and decay that threatens to engulf the just as exactingly realized (and often as order-obsessed) characters who inhabit them. Bottle Rocket’s Dignan’s 75-year-plan hits some snags before hitting the one-week mark. Chas Tenebaum’s obsession with his children’s safety will never make up for his loss. Steve Zissou can explore the depths of the ocean in a state-of-the-art submarine, but death finds those around him anyway. Time and history eat away at the glamour of the Grand Budapest Hotel despite Gustave H.’s best efforts.
Only art—miniature rooms, films filled with lovingly realized wistfulness, or other forms—can freeze time, and in The French Dispatch Anderson uses his artform of choice to pay tribute to another: magazine journalism in general and the golden age of The New Yorker in particular. Set in the fictional French city of Ennui (rhymes with and resembles “Pahr-ee”), the film takes the form of three articles and a “Shouts & Murmurs”-style scene-setter found in the pages of The French Dispatch of Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, a long-running (but soon to shutter) newspaper insert that’s specialized on reporting the news from abroad back to the heartland in the decades after World War II. It’s been managed in fastidious detail by editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray)—he loves good writing, hates crying, fiercely supports his staff when not firing them—but, as the film opens, Howitzer’s reign has come to an end.
That makes the film something of a wake in the form of The French Dispatch’s greatest hits, stories inspired in varying degrees by Anderson’s favorite New Yorker pieces. Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) kicks things off with a tour of Ennui with an emphasis on the more picturesque elements of its seedier side (rats and all). It’s followed by tales of a mad, imprisoned artist (Benicio del Toro) in love with the guard (Léa Seydoux) who doubles as his favorite model; a student revolutionary Timothée Chalamet on the frontlines of a protest engulfing ’68 Ennui; and a profile of a chef that turns into a wild crime story.
The one-line plot descriptions don’t really do justice to the filigree within the filigree found in each segment. The French Dispatch is, in many respects, maximalist Anderson. Frames contain more detail than the eye can take in in a single viewing. Segments alternate between black-and-white and color. One sequence plays host to a lengthy excerpt of a play. Another breaks into animation. (Because what’s an issue of the New Yorker without cartoons?) The cast is expansive even by Anderson standards, with newcomers like Del Toro, Liev Schrieber, Chalamet, and Jeffrey Wright joining an ensemble of regulars that includes Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, and Tilda Swinton.
If this sounds like a director trying to push himself in new directions it is—but only up to a point. There’s no mistaking this for the work of anyone else. Even the ’68 riots appear meticulously production designed. But, in spite of the sizing up, The French Dispatch also feels a bit minor, at least on first viewing. (Anderson films have a way of shifting and expanding in meaning and significance with time and repeated exposure.) The segments mix whimsy and melancholy, as expected, but with fewer of the moments that melt the heart that usually comes with that mix.
That might be at least part of the point, however. Each segment provides at least one moment that doubles as a window into the heart of the character writing the piece, the art specialist (Swinton), on-the-ground political correspondent (Frances McDormand), and food journalist (Wright) charged with observing stories with which they can’t help but get personally involved. Though fleeting, such passages get at something fundamental about our relationship with the type of writing The French Dispatch celebrates: the connection we feel in the moments when the veil of journalistic objectivity gets pulled away to reveal the personalities—and the wants, needs, and disappointments—of the authors responsible for it. (Wright, whose character finds in Ennui a refuge from the racism and homophobia of his homeland, has an aside that’s almost as heartbreaking as F. Murray Abraham’s final moments in The Grand Budapest Hotel.) On the surface it’s Anderson’s most distant and dispassionate work, a dollhouse piece designed more to be admired behind glass than touched directly. But there’s more between the lines. —Keith Phipps
Dir. David Gordon Green
When last we saw Michael Myers, at the end of 2018’s Halloween, he appeared to be well and truly dead, killed, decades after their first encounter, by his archfoe Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) after returning once more to trouble Haddonfield, Illinois. But, hey, not so fast. Turns out that director David Gordon Green and longtime collaborator Danny McBride (collaborating on the screenplay here with Scott Teems) had a trilogy in mind for this slasher revival. Thus Halloween Kills opens with Michael Myers emerging from Strode’s burning home/weaponized bunker, killing a bunch of firefighters, then heading to town to kill and kill again.
Green’s first Halloween was an odd item. Beautifully shot—Green did get his start making lyrical indies like George Washington that in no way suggested the unpredictable path of the career that followed—and technically masterful, its creators also seemed to recognize it had no compelling artistic reason to exist, adding a fuzzy thematic layer about PTSD that, at best, seemed undercooked. The film only really came to life in the scenes of Michael taking out victims, including a memorable stretch in which he traveled door-to-door slaughtering whoever he found. Halloween Kills offers more of this mix but less: plenty of grody, creative kills, some vague consideration of mob violence (it’s bad), Easter eggs galore, and nothing much to chew on as it sets up part three, due next year. —Keith Phipps
Thanks for sharing. Excited for both Dune and French Dispatch. Your reviews make me even more confident I will enjoy them. I saw Halloween Kills and agree with your review wholeheartedly. The final film in the trilogy should have a little more to chew on thematically, so still looking forward to it despite the relative misfire that is Halloween Kills.
Also, if you skipped past the subhed, please go read it for some amazing Scott Tobias wordplay.