by William McKenna/Guest Writer
DREW MOVIE CHALLENGE 2
# 1 Dune 2021
I have been told about how great the Dune series of books is for over 40 years and I have yet to read them and likely never will. Even when I was in the Sci-Fi book club I avoided it. Why… way too much work. Trying to keep up with the House of this and the House of that and the trade routes and the spice. I’ve seen the David Lynch version of the book from 1984. I have also seen the great documentary Jodrowsky’s Dune which I highly recommend… so I am quite aware of the Dune universe. YES I know that George Lucas was inspired by some of the things from Dune when he made Star Wars. I get it…people love Dune. People love 50 Shades of Grey and I haven’t read that either. I’m more of a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy type of person. So to each his own. I will try and enjoy the movie all the same.
The film features the dreamy Timothee Chalamet as some sort of chosen one type character who is thrust into a quest on the planet Arrakis. It’s the only planet that has the SPICE which I guess gives people super powers or something? The rest of the cast is rounded out by various cast members from the Marvel Universe and the DC Universe. Aquaman has pretty solid part as some sort of ultra tough warrior. Big surprise there. Mary Jane from Spider-Man I guess is the love interest. Never saw that coming? The cast is fine as they spout such epic lines as
“This is worm territory” and “worm time warning”. I guess there is a worm problem on planet Whatever.
The good guys are all nice looking people while the villains are bloated gross people with horrid table manners. I’ve never seen a movie where the characters who were disgusting when they eat were not the villain. The main villain is channeling his best Marlon Brando as he mumbles his lines and gobbles down squishy, sloppy, nasty food. He even looked like Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. “The Horror…The Horror.”
The problem with the film is that it is boring. The screenplay uses way too much exposition. Characters walk in the room and describe various this and that so the viewer can understand why the heck we should give a flip about the SPICE or fear the sand worms. A novel works in its own universe and often does not translate to screen. Dune is a prime example of a book that just doesn’t translate cinematically. Though Star Wars covers many similar themes it is written specifically for the screen and works great. The screenplay for Dune a is like a long walk in the desert because the story spends a long time with characters talking about the desert and walking and occasionally running around in the endless desert avoiding the giant worms.
The film has the expected cinematography and production design. The special effects look like stuff you have seen in other movies. The desert scenes are OK but the entire film is shot too dark. I kept wondering why nobody ever turned on a light. I guess space people can see in the dark.
The film ends with out any sort of climax as that has to happen in the next film. The novel is long and dense and the 2 hour 35 minute running time for the film isn’t enough time to tell the story. So I guess I will have to wait till the next film to find out why I should care about anything that happened in this film. Timothee never even rides the giant worm…oops that’s a spoiler for the next film.
The film is fine overall; it’s just not a movie that interested me. I’m still not sure what the story is really about outside of people really loving them some SPICE and be careful or you might get eaten by a giant worm.
# 2 A Taste of Honey 1961
This is a film about a school girl left to take care of herself when her mother remarries. It’s directed by Tony Richardson. This is a gritty drama for it’s time and features a bi-racial romance that would have been controversial in 1961.
Well-shot and directed the film moves along at a good pace but finds a way for the viewer to connect with the characters. Jo, played by Rita Tushingham, carries the film as she plays a 17- year-old just trying to feel loved in the little spot she occupies on the planet. She has a relationship with Jimmy who is a sailor that leads to a pregnancy. He ships out and there she is by herself to have a baby alone.
Jo quits school gets a job and befriends Geoffrey, played by Murray Melvin, who is gay which also would have been controversial in 1961. The two form a little family that brings some needed stability to Jo. Though Geoff is gay he is dedicated to Jo and is willing to marry her though they are not in love.
The stability is shattered when Jo’s mother returns after her recent marriage collapses. The mother chases off Geoff and Jo is once again trapped in the cycle of disfunction with her awful mother with the only person who cared about her gone.
The film uses upbeat childlike music throughout which is interesting as the situations the characters are in seem hopeless. Jo is a child and it works almost like an inner monologue reminding us that even though Jo is pregnant and taking care of herself…she is just a child.
Many scenes in the film feature children playing games and doing kid things. Jo is a kid herself but her situation keeps her from being in that world even though she wishes she could. Jo is frightened of the responsibility being a mother brings as she has never had any stability in her own life.
Will there be a happy ending for Jo and her child? That’s a question that is not answered as the film ends. All that is certain is that Jo is on her own just as she was when the film began.
#3 Spencer 2021
On August 31st 1997…I know exactly where I was when Princess Diana died in a tragic car crash in a tunnel in Paris. I had come in and worked a Saturday at WRTV 6. Though it was Sunday the 31st in Paris, the time difference made it only Saturday in Indianapolis. I recall clear as day just before we were going to air the producer that night, Jenny, in a voice of shock saying “Oh, my God, she’s dead!” We stayed with network from then on out. That’s an important story to keep in mind as I give my thoughts on Spencer, a movie about Princess Diana’s fictional Christmas with her awful husband and in-laws. I have no interest in royal people…I think it’s absolute nonsense. Princess Diana, on the other hand, had been a kindergarten teacher and seemed to be just a regular normal person trying to do her best every day. By her own accounts she just wanted a family and be a good mother and wife. Unfortunately, she was involved with the wrong man for that. I’m not likely to give the royal family a break in this review.
The film opens with Princess Diana, played as best she can by Kristen Stewart, arriving late for a Christmas weekend at a cold English estate. She does what she can with the accent and the immaculate style of Diana. Stewart controls every scene she is in and demands attention as it’s all happening from her point of view. It’s a tough role as Princess Diana meant so many different things to so many different people. I’m guessing nobody will ever be able to really capture how complex Princess Diana actually was but Stewart is all in on her effort.
Diana is completely aware that Prince Charles is having an affair with another woman. He even gives his lover the same gifts he gives his wife. He has no problem humiliating her. Diana is a strong but abused woman. She entered a marriage with the proper intentions but her husband did not.
The story unfolds with preposterous ceremony in a family Christmas weekend, everything so formal and lifeless. Diana was just too bright a light for the pompous, cold, dark royal family. The estate is poorly lit with centuries of old artifacts. The dinner scene with the family is so formal and soul-sucking I was hoping somebody might pass gas to lighten the mood.
The production design is top-notch. Even though it takes place in a large estate, the environment gives off a stifling claustrophobia that closes in on Diana in every scene. As soon as she enters the house she is in by all accounts a haunted house of horrors. This help set the mood for Diana’s state of mind thoughout the weekend. It’s known that Princess Diana had mental health issues intensified by her environment.
The rest of the cast fulfills their roles as best they can. The royals come off as cold, lifeless ghouls. That is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s how they exist in the story as it unfolds around Diana. The actors who play the help are the only people Diana connects with on a human level. Sally Hawkins as Maggie is Diana’s only friend and confidant and she is great in the role.
The best scenes are with Diana and her children William and Henry. Above all else Diana wanted to be a good mother and her children are the only family she has that weekend that loves her. She was suffering through it all in hopes things would work out for the children.
Scenes with Prince Charles are tense as would be expected under the circumstances. It’s a thankless role as he is truly the villain in this relationship . He keeps trying to control his wife while living as he pleases. There is simply no love. Charles goes on about doing things for the good of the country but is willing to do nothing for the good of his family.
There are lots of really good scenes as Diana begins to break free from the confines of royal life. An unapproved visit to her childhood home reminds her of her joyful youth. She simply has to be her own person. By the end of the film she gathers her children and returns to London. In a call back to an opening scene where Princess Diana pulls an old coat off a weathered scarecrow as a sort of contrast to her immaculate image, she drives past it and this time the scarecrow is dressed in her clothes. She is leaving it all behind. The film ends with Diana not knowing what her future would be. Of course I know what happens so it makes the events of the film that much sadder.
This is not a movie I would usually be interested in but Stewart is so engaging that it’s really pretty good. The directing is fine but it’s the power in Kristen Stewart’s performance that drives the film. It’s stylized and at times borders on hallucinatory but feels real at the same time. That is tough to do.
#4 Portrait of a Lady on Fire …2019
Portrait of a Lady On Fire is like any film where a painter comes to paint the portrait of a person on an island. From the start you know they are going to end up in a romantic entanglement . This film is very predictable from the very start. Marianne arrives on the island to paint the portrait of Heloise who is about to be forced into a marriage to some guy she doesn’t love. Has there ever been a movie or story been made about a beautiful young woman being forced to marry some guy by her family where the viewer is like “Yeah, this is great”?
The film is directed by Celine Sciamm. The production design and setting is spectacular and enhances the story of forbidden love that is being presented. The film is a period piece that takes place sometime in the 18th century. The women are stunning in the fashions of the day, all of which informs who the characters are and their status in the strict social structure.
The film is interesting in that it is strictly from the women’s point of view. The story is about women and the relationships they form with each other and the value society puts on them. Heloise does not want to sit for her portrait as she knows when it’s finished she will have to get married and she will have to compromise her own identity to fit social norms of the day. Marrianne also has few options as a woman of her era to be free as she would like to be as well. Over time the two women embrace their own desires and enter into a relationship. It’s not presented as something salacious or vulgar but as two people who genuinely fall in love. Though the story is very predictable and been presented in other films where usually the male painter pursues the female subject, this film focuses more on two people finding each other as people, not just objects of lust. There are many quiet moments of the women together where the attraction grows in a much more organic and fulfilling manner.
The women only have a few days together when the mother of Heloise is away from the island where they can be free. At a gathering at a bonfire with other women Heloise’s dress briefly catches fire and she appears as a phoenix for just a brief magic moment. This of course becomes the painting the title of the film comes from as it is a symbol of the fire like passion the woman have for each other. Though the fire burns only for a short time it burned brilliant like their love.
Marrianne finishes the painting as Heloise mother returns and has to leave the island. As she leaves she turns back to see Heloise in her wedding gown. This is the last time the women will be able to show how much they love each other as both know they will be less than they could be as they will now be apart.
This is not a movie I would usually seek out but it’s a cut above the painter falling in love with the subject trope. The story is completely predictable but the directing and performances rise above the basic story elements.
#5 Happy Lazzaro 2018
This is an Italian drama directed by Alice Rohrwacher and stars Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro. I can tell by the grit of the film that it is well shot on 16 mm film. This gives the film a strong visual presence that informs the viewer there will likely not be many funny bits in this film. The Italian village where the film is shot looks really lived in and the grain of the film enhances the environment of these characters.
The story revolves around a group of isolated people who are being swindled by a land baron to work on a farm. The story is a kind of fairy tale. The people in village are so isolated that they do not know sharecropping is illegal and they are being exploited. The story is based on something that actually happened. They are exploited and just continue about their daily lives as best they can with little hope of improving their place in the world.
Through a series of events the villagers discover they are being swindled by the land baron. Lazzaro falls off a cliff and becomes unconscious as the other villagers are rescued from servitude. Lazzaro becomes a Rip Van Winkle figure.
Time passes and Lazzaro wakes up having not aged at all. When he goes to his old village it is abandoned and run down. He finds his way to the city where all the old villagers now live. They have fallen into terrible poverty, much worse than they had in their days of servitude in their old village. Lazzaro is very confused by what is happening and wants things to be the way they were before he went into his Rip Van Winkle sleep. He is a young man lost in time as all he knows is gone and all his friends have become old or died as he has stayed young and somewhat innocent.
Lazzaro is desperate to try and return things to the way they had been before and ends up in a bank asking that the old land baron be given back his fortune so he can return to his village. The people in the bank think it’s being robbed and beat Lazzaro to death.
The film ends with a wolf maybe running through the city into woods back to the old village…this being Lazzaro’s spirit, I guess.
Not sure what the big takeaway from the story is as things go from bad to worse to dead. The film is very well-done and shows the human spirit can be crushed in more ways than one. Not even the innocence of a good-natured young man is enough to overcome unfortunate situations. A wise man once told me, “Life is a poop sandwich and each day you take another bite. “ Poor Lazzaro and his villagers had the misfortune of actually having to eat two poop sandwiches.
In closing I would like to say I have enjoyed the journey of watching these films that Drew has picked. Most are films I most likely never would have discovered. In a time where most kids his age think Jason Momoa talking to a digital fish is high art… it’s good to see a young person finding real stories to watch. It seems that for the most part Drew likes films that are kind of downers where the characters get kicked in the head a lot by the world around them. Yes, life does have a lot of hard knocks…that is for sure. But there is also a great deal of love and happiness. Perhaps pepper in a few Steve Martin comedies from time to time to offset the misery of life films.