A Summer Selection of Film, Part 1

The last few months of 2021 and the opening of 2022 – the festive season or summer in the southern hemisphere – marks the re-emergence of major film releases following the COVID outbreak. While all through 2021 there was a steady release of films, the big-budget blockbusters have been held back until late 2021. A small eclectic selection of these films are briefly reviewed here in this two-part series. The best of the blockbusters in this recent period has been the sci-fi epic Dune (Part One).

Dune (2021, Legendary Pictures)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Featuring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, and Javier Bardem. Based on the novel by Frank Herbert. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.

This is part one of Denis Villeneuve’s two-part sci-fi epic, based on Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name, and following earlier adaptions by David Lynch (in 1984) and the TV mini-series Frank Herbert’s Dune (2000) by John Harrison (director/writer). Villeneuve’s Dune eclipses both. It’s visually stunning and captures the gritty drama of the narrative, without giving way to melodrama.

In a galaxy far, far away, the Emperor hands over control of the spice-rich desert planet Arrakis, otherwise known as Dune, to the House of Atreides. The Atreides replace the Harkonnen, who now plot their revenge. The desert-dwelling indigenous population are known as the Fremen, who will come to side with House Atreides, but more specifically with the young Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet).

Dune has an impressive cast from several countries, and acting all round is very good. I especially like Stellan Skarsgård as the Harkonnen leader Baron Vladimir. Cinematography by Australian Greig Fraser is immersive (best on a big screen), with spectacular landscape vistas, and open but stark interiors. My one criticism of the visual look of the film is that much of it is dimly lit, no doubt to (1) draw on the contrast of light and dark, and (2) create a dark mood. The soundtrack (Hans Zimmer) is loud but effective. Editing is crucial in a film like this, that could so easily include this and that aspect of the novel. I think in this adaptation (edited by Joe Walker) it is tight and keeps the narrative rolling and engaging. Unlike a few other blockbuster films released in the past few months, Dune is making a healthy profit at the box office. Is it a 3.5 star or 4 star film? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to Part Two, due for release in 2023.

The Beatles: Get Back (2021, Apple Corps / WingNut Films)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Produced by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, Peter Jackson, Clare Olssen and Jonathan Clyde. Directed by Peter Jackson.

This four star documentary by Peter Jackson is a full five stars if you’re a Beatles fan (I am). This is a three-part mini-series documentary by Peter Jackson; an extended and substantially recut footage of the filming of the Let It Be film by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (1970), and recording of the album. It’s total runtime is around eight hours, and is released on the Disney+ channel (you can do what I did, sign up for one month and then cancel after watching it). Peter Jackson describes it as a documentary of a documentary. I personally think this is the best reality TV series around. It is cutting edge, raw and delightful. What shines through is the extraordinary talent of four young men interacting with each other and the way in which they respond to pressure as things begin to derail. Despite some tension under pressure, overall it is positive, fun, and engaging to watch. The dynamic between Paul and John is especially evident and heart-warming. And the music, from raw chords to finished product, is amazing.

Jackson and his team have used the latest technical devises to improve the picture and sound quality of the original recording on film, and the recut extended footage gives an entirely different feel to the Let It Be film. It’s heart-warming and inspiring. For Beatles fans or musicians or film makers – especially documentary makers – this is an absolute gem of a film. For others, eight hours may prove to be a stretch. I loved it. 

West Side Story (2021, Amblin Entertainment / TSG Entertainment)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Featuring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, and Rita Moreno. Based on the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents. Screenplay by Tony Kushner. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Another blockbuster film released late in 2021 is Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, but unlike Dune this film is likely to make a significant loss. And that’s a shame because it is actually a very well-made film. This is Spielberg’s tribute to the ground-breaking 1957 stage play and Robert Wise’s 1961 film, using the same Leonard Bernstein music and song lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and the same basic dance choreography.

The 1957 stage play – and this film – is a modern day Romeo and Juliet story set in the working class ‘west-side’ area of New York (1957), as apartments and small businesses were being pulled down to construct the Lincoln Centre. Two rival gangs of youths, roam the streets and the local dance hall. They are the Sharks, a gang of new Puerto Rican immigrants, and the Jets, a gang of longer established immigrants from Europe, Poles, Italians, Irish (not just a white gang as is so often stated). They don’t mix unless it is street fighting. Enter Maria (Rachel Zegler) – who is the sister of Bernado (David Alverez), leader of the Sharks – and Tony (Ansel Elgort), until recently a key member of the Jets – who fall instantly and hopelessly in love.

The romantic, tension-filled story is of course wonderful; and the songs and dance routines are spectacular. Cinematography by Janusz Kamiński is exceptional, and the colour palette rich and atmospheric. The sets, sound and editing are all spot on. From a technical point of view the film is brilliant. But the film experience overall is something less than that.  It’s uneven. It’s watchable rather than exhilarating. The lead male role of Tony played by Ansel Algort doesn’t match Rachel Zegler’s Maria or even the other major roles of Riff (Michael Faist), Bernado (David Alverez), Anita (Ariana DeBose) or Valentina (Rita Morino, who incidentally played the role of Anita in the 1961 film some 60 years earlier). He has a beautiful voice but his acting is a bit lack-lustre. But it’s still a meritable film, and its dealing of racial tensions in an American city has as much relevance now as it did when West Side Story first hit the stage more than 60 years ago.

The French Dispatch (2021, Indian Paintbrush / American Empirical Pictures)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Featuring Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Christoph Waltz, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston…and so on. Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness and Jason Schwartzman. Directed by Wes Anderson.

What a film! Maybe this is really a four star film, but I will get to that. The French Dispatch (of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) is the tenth feature film by director Wes Anderson, and is an affectionate tribute to The New Yorker magazine, as well as a homage to narrative and the aesthetic in French cinema (and even French photographic portraiture). Its release (Cannes 2021), like many of the films reviewed here, was delayed one year due to the COVID outbreak. 

The basic premise of the film revolves around the French Dispatch, a magazine-style Sunday supplement to the Kansas Evening Sun, run by editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), and staffed by a small team of passionate but quirky journalists. Set in the late 1960s in a fictional French town, the film is divided into three main narratives – provided by the journalists – within an over-riding story about the magazine itself (narrated by Angelica Houston). Each of the three main narratives are in reality narratives within narratives – often with their own side-narratives – firstly of the news story itself, then of the journalist telling the story; and all connected to the life of the magazine, which itself is an international outpost to a larger American newspaper. That is, narratives connect people in a complex web of seemingly unrelated lives and events. I would describe it as a montage of portraits. Interestingly, the lead poster for the film (above) is inspired by the Beatles’ montage cover of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  

There is so much to say about this film; it has an awful lot going on. It is visually splendid (cinematography by Robert Yeoman), the set design (Adam Stockhausen) is pure joy and the stories and the scenes are eclectically but artistically portrayed. It is a ride into Anderson’s aesthetic. It’s part in colour, part black and white, part in English, part in French, portrait shots front on (as if a still camera for a magazine) and side profile shots. Dualities and metaphors galore. Kind of nice, and arty. And it has a dream ensemble cast. And yet for all of the splendour of this film it occasionally lulls. Of the three main narratives, one is a standout – narrated by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton – she’s just wonderful) and featuring Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody and Léa Seydoux. The other narratives are fine and quirky but there is an unevenness between them. If you can put the slight faults in narrative aside and just let the film wash over you in a montage of portraiture and colour, or stark black and white it is a very arty and interesting film. Of the eight films reviewed here this is the most complex, and a second and third viewing may be well worthwhile. It’s not my favourite film of the bunch but I do like it. For Wes Anderson core fans, a must see film, and likely a four star+ film. For me, I enjoyed the ride, but there was a bump or two on the way.

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