Brief thoughts on Dune, Squid Game, No Time to Die, The Last Duel, and more.
I haven’t had nearly as much time as I’d have liked to write this month, so this is going to be more capsule review style, basically done in one evening. Okay? Okay!
First things first: Dune rocks. I made it just fifty pages through Frank Herbert’s seminal novel in my first — and to date, only — attempt to read it. (I remembered the Gom Jabbar, though.) But whatever Denis Villenueve had to cut in adaptation to the screen, he more than makes up for with scale and ambition. The scope is epic; the visuals are frequently gobsmacking; every actor seems perfectly cast — even Timothy Chalamet as our sandy Space Jesus. The movie’s just awesome in the truest, most literal sense of the word: it left me full of awe.
If I fault it for anything, it’s that the ending doesn’t resolve an emotional arc as much as give us a cliffhanger for the midseason finale of a television show. I could also say that it’s a little slow-moving in places. But these are minor quibbles in the face of something so damned impressive, with Hans Zimmer’s score droning in your ears and the infinitely pristine vistas of Arrakis only broken up by the movement of gargantuan sand worms on the horizon. For all of that, and the nifty hand-to-hand combat, accessible worldbuilding, its all-star cast, and Stephen McKinley Henderson’s parasol, I say thank you. And thanks to everyone else who streamed it or bought a ticket, because we’re definitely getting a Part Two. And I’m even going to read the book first.
Squid Game (Netflix)
Netflix is notoriously opaque when it comes to its viewing numbers, but the word on the digital street is that Squid Game is the streamer’s most-watched debut of all time. Think about that: the most popular offering in Netflix history is an unheralded, anti-capitalist, hyper-violent Korean import, and a traumatizing viewing experience to boot. I’m sure there’s an essay or two in there on what that says about us (we’d have to start by acknowledging the realities of income inequality, especially in its debt-ridden country of origin), but it wouldn’t matter nearly as much if the show wasn’t as bold, audacious, brilliantly plotted, and ferociously binge-able as it is.
I mean, is it entirely original? Of course not — look no further than Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, or their legion of imitators. (Look even further back to Lord of the Flies if you’re feeling especially saucy.) But there’s no denying the unique alchemy of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series, which freshly reinvigorates the genre’s tropes in such a way that even if we think we know what’s coming, the path it takes to get there has a seemingly limitless capacity to shock. (Spoilers ahoy, I guess.) Each episode — each children’s game, repurposed for maximum horror — is a new trap door, dropping lower and lower into hell. The Marbles installment, “Gganbu,” is one of the most devastating hours of television I’ve ever seen. But why keep watching? Because the character work is so strong, and Hwang’s direction is so confident. Because the characters are not merely trapped on this nightmarishly Seussian island, but choose to return to it knowing what it is. Because you just have to know what happens.
Not everything about it works; the subplot with the detective serves only to feed the audience answers that become less interesting the more we learn; the “VIPs,” presumably the only American-accented actors the production could get during COVID, are pretty terrible. The ending itself is quite polarizing, and I still haven’t fully decided how I feel about it. The seeds are plenty for the “big twist” pretty consistently throughout the series, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe that’s the point, though — that even when you’re at the mercy of the venal billionaire class, your worst enemy is still your own impulses, including leaving the door ending for a second season despite having a perfectly fine ending already in hand.
No Time to Die
I don’t know if I can yet talk openly about the ending to Daniel Craig’s swan song as Bond, but it’s honestly the most interesting thing about it. I’ll be brief, then: I think it works and is earned. It even made me a little emotional, which I didn’t expect. Hopefully that’s vague enough for you, but if not, sorry.
The rest of the movie is “pretty good.” Not an instant classic like Skyfall, but it’s way better than Spectre, despite leaning absurdly heavily on characters and plot development from that turgid nothing of a movie. Craig’s laughable romance with Lea Seydoux? Yep, that’s still a thing. It only barely works better here. Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld is still around, pulling focus from an underused Rami Malek. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga constructs his action sequences with plenty of verve — the Cuba section, featuring an endearingly klutzy Ana de Armas as Bond’s local contact, is especially delightful. (The Craig era has never been more fun — more of Bond and de Armas firing machine guns whilst back to back, please!) The rest of it, however, is as self-serious and plodding as the previous installments. Though I have come to enjoy the supporting cast, especially Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, and Ralph Fiennes, I must admit I’m looking forward to James Bond just being pulpy entertainment again.
The Last Duel
It sucks that this is apparently the year’s biggest flop. The reasons for that are apparently manifold: Disney effectively self-sabotaging its Fox Searchlight orphans; COVID neutralizing the audience for adult dramas (people with kids who’d rather wait for it to hit streaming); the fact that it’s not exactly a swashbuckling pop epic like Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, but bleak and troubling chamber drama for the #MeToo era. But whatever happened at the box office, The Last Duel is actually a pretty great movie with a lot to say about masculinity through the ages, acted to near-perfection, and lensed by a legendary director who hasn’t yet run out of inventive ways to stage a bloody sword fight.
The film has been frequently described as “Rashomon-like” in how it depicts opposing viewpoints of the Event in question — the rape of Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) by Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, who can really swish a cape) — but the message of Rashomon is that memory is fickle, people are biased, and sometimes the truth is unknowable. The Last Duel, written in sections by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcenter, trades in no such vagaries: In her telling, Marguerite was violently assaulted, then victimized anew by institutions more interested in protecting a man’s “honor” than true justice. So when her husband Sir Jean (Damon, with a truly unfortunate haircut), who imagines himself the story’s hero, challenges Le Gris to the fateful duel, it is not with virtue on his mind, but pride. The script more than supports even deeper analysis, but the performances from Comer, Driver and a vilely louche Affleck are excellent enough to keep the film afloat even on a surface level. Many in the audience I saw it with hated it anyway, though. Even when the worst-possible outcome has been averted, Scott is not going to let you leave feeling good about it.
- Only Murders in the Building was a really fun time. If I remember the finale for anything, it won’t be the resolution to the season’s big mystery, or the cliffhanger setting up Season 2, but the simple joys of a half-paralyzed Steve Martin trying to roll himself into (and out of) an elevator. He’s still got it, folks.
- Dear White People tried something pretty nuts for its final season: Creator Justin Simien made it a musical, almost entirely using 90s R&B songs. But when you have a cast that plainly talented (Ashley Blaine Featherson can sing, and Marque Richardson can sing and tap dance), why not? And hey, it mostly works! The characterizations and satire are as sharp as ever, but it was the intriguing framing device flashing forward into the (apparently still pandemic-riddled) future that made the most profound points about nostalgia, artistic compromise, and the power of collective action. A truly unique series, and a fitting end.
- So Y: The Last Man has apparently been cancelled (for now), which is frankly dumb considering how much time and money FX has already spent on it, but I suppose that was the point. And that’s a real shame, because it’s genuinely engaging despite its flaws. Let’s hope HBO Max picks it up?
- Foundation, though, is disappearing behind the veil of inscrutability. I don’t think that it speaks well of the centuries-spanning sci-fi-philosophical saga that the most interesting sections are with Lee Pace’s Emperor, who is not really a character at all in the books. The Terminus stuff is confusing and far too “action-ized.” Disappointing.
- Last month, I wondered whether What We Do in the Shadows had lost its fastball. No spoilers, but after the ninth episode “A Birthday Party,” I’m glad to say I was wrong. I am genuinely thrilled and terrified about what’s coming.
- Succession’s back, and it’s incredible. If it is to be said, so it is.
Looking ahead to… Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho finally screen locally (10/29)… Jodie Whittaker’s final season on Doctor Who begins (BBC America, 10/31)… Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Lakeith Stanfield, Regina King and more star in the new-school western The Harder They Fall (Netflix, 11/3)… Chloe Zhao’s Eternals is Marvel’s biggest gamble to date (11/5)… Miguel Sapochnik directs Tom Hanks, and a robot, in Finch (Apple, 11/5)… get everybody and the stuff together, because the John Cho-starring Cowboy Bebop adaptation is finally here (Netflix, 11/19)… Will Smith is coming for Oscar in Williams family biopic King Richard (HBO Max, 11/19)… Lin-Manuel Miranda directs the tick, tick…BOOM! musical with Andrew Garfield (Netflix, 11/19)… The Wheel of Time begins to turn on Amazon (11/19)… the new MCU series Hawkeye spreads holiday cheer (Disney+, 11/24)… Ridley Scott SZN continues with the assuredly campy House of Gucci (11/24)… Peter Jackson’s three-part Get Back docu-series looks wonderful (Disney+, 11/25)… How To With John Wilson returns for more awkwardness (HBO, 11/26). Whew!