A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

A quick note about Dune

So after we finished the movie tonight we sat and talked about Dune as a story and how difficult it would be to truly encompass all the details of the novel in a single movie. And we pretty much agreed that the miniseries does an excellent job at handling a lot of the details, even if some things still get left out.

And then we put in the miniseries and watched about an hour and a half of it.

Now, miniseries aren’t included in this project, but I think it says something about the world Frank Herbert created, that after watching one depiction of it, we went ahead and put in another depiction in the same night. Andy’s also pulled up the book on his iPod and I’ve renewed my determination to find myself a copy of the board game I heard about at PAX East (oh my goodness it sounds so amazingly confusing and complicated). That’s the mark of an impressively built world.

June 6, 2010 Posted by | we want information | | Leave a comment

Movie 98 – Dune (1984)

Dune (1984) – June 6th, 2010

Why, thank you, Irulan, for setting the scene for us. How very helpful. I mentioned last night, and might well mention in almost every science fiction movie review, that there is a persistent issue of explaining the world/future in which the story is set. In this – yet another book adaptation – we don’t get a bit of text, we get one of the main characters superimposed in front of a field of stars, explaining the background almost as if she’s giving us some gossip at a party. It’s a wee bit clunky, as is the continuing narration from that same character. Granted, her role in the book ends up being the historian of the events that have passed and those to come, and there is a metric shitload of background information and plotting within plotting going on in this story. But that doesn’t make this not clunky from the get-go. There’s the narration, and then everyone’s got internal monologue as voice-over, it’s just awkward.

Oddly unintentionally, we happened to pick a movie with Richard Jordan in it tonight (he plays Duncan Idaho), when last night he played Francis. It took me by surprise. Pity we’ve already done Solarbabies, since he’s in that too. Of course, we also just did a Kyle MacLachlan movie too. And Sian Phillips, who plays the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, was in Battle for Endor. And Linda Hunt was in Popeye (the dude who plays Rabban was too, weirdly). Eventually we’ll get to The Two Towers, which Brad Dourif’s in. And that’s not even touching on Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell, Sean Young and Sting. Okay, so we don’t have any other Dean Stockwell movies (yet – we’re working on The Legend of Billie Jean), but seriously this movie’s cast is a bizarre collection of names. But it’s a bizarre movie, so I guess that suits. I just hadn’t given much thought to how many of them were people who’ve been in other movies we own.

This movie is based on a science fiction classic. One that I’ve always considered one of the denser books I’ve read, and I was an English major. I’ve read some impenetrable stuff. It’s an excellent book, but it’s got a lot going on and a lot of background. Set ten thousand years in the future, the human race has spread to numerous other worlds, with swift travel between them made possible by a compound known as Spice which allows a mysterious group known as the Navigators to fold space. The Spice is essential to everything and only exists on one planet: Arrakis, also known as Dune. The House Harkonnen, a powerful family full of sadistic madmen, controls Arrakis when the movie begins. But that doesn’t last. The Emperor, feeling threatened by the influence another house, Atreides, is building, arranges to have House Atreides take over Arrakis, spurring the Harkonnens to attack them to take it back, thereby ridding himself of the problem house while keeping his own hands clean. Except there’s also the Bene Gesserit, a group of women with seemingly magical abilities who’ve been playing a much longer game than anyone else, planning breeding and bloodlines between the Houses for generations, and they’ve got plans for House Atreides and House Harkonnen. And all of that has to be set up within the first twenty minutes or so. You’ve got several factions, all with plans and plots and schemes and traitors and agents and that’s before we even know how they’ll all play out within the actual movie.

Paul, scion of House Atreides, goes with his mother and father to Arrakis, where, after a traitor in the house allows the Harkonnens to attack, has to escape into the desert. His father dead, his family’s allies in hiding, he finds the natives of Arakkis, the Fremen (another faction!) and joins them, fulfilling a prophecy they have about a leader who has the abilities of a Bene Gesserit, who knows their ways by instinct, and who will lead them on a Jihad. He’s been having prophetic dreams about the Fremen, things that come to pass when he finds them. His mother, Jessica, becomes a Fremen wisewoman, which involves ingesting a poisonous liquid and making it not poisonous. Unfortunately she also exposes her unborn daughter to Spice in the process and the girl, Alia, is born knowing all an adult would know. Oh, and then there are the giant sandworms, which are connected to Spice and used by the Fremen to travel across the desert. How could I leave out the sandworms? So Paul and his mother join the Fremen and he gets a new name (Muad’dib) and they spend two years with them (as we’re told by a voiceover), training them to fight and giving them weapons that aren’t in the book and giving the Harkonnens a gigantic pain in their collective asses by interfering with Spice harvesting. He falls in love with a Fremen woman, Chani, and unfortunately there’s not much to that plot in the movie. And then the Navigators tell the Emperor to stop dicking around and get rid of the Fremen problem and Paul does what no male has ever done and goes through the same process his mother did, using the Spice to see inside his own mind and the future and the present and it’s not presented terribly well, but the upshot is that he’s all messianic by the end. He and the Fremen attack when the Emperor comes to Arrakis and after a duel with the last remaining member of the Harkonnen ruling family, Paul marries the Emperor’s daughter, Irulan (our narrator) and will eventually be Emperor. Oh, and then it rains for the first time on Arrakis.

I won’t bitch about the special effects. The personal shields used by Paul and Gurney early on are a little reminiscent of the Money For Nothing music video, but overall the effects aren’t bad, especially given that we’re talking 1984 here. The acting, overall, isn’t bad. I think the voiceovers and internal monologue leave a lot to be desired and take away from a lot of moments, and I think at least a few parts could have been left for the actors to convey by, you know, acting, instead of reading into a microphone. None of the internal monologue has much in the way of vocal inflection. It’s all done in a thoughtful whisper to convey that we’re hearing the thoughts inside a given character’s head. But I like the Duke, I actually like Kyle MacLachlan as Paul. I’ve got no complaints about Gurney or Duncan or Jessica. The Emperor’s perfectly fine, as are the Fremen. And Rabban and Feyd, the scions of House Harkonnen, are adequately played for the limited screen time they get, but they should get more. Rabban, who’s played by the guy who played Bluto in Popeye, making me think of the I’m Mean song whenever he’s on screen, barely gets enough time to show what a jackass he is (that song’s a good one for him, actually). And by the time Feyd shows up at the end and fights Paul, we should know who he is, but all we’ve gotten so far is Sting making crazy eyes while wearing a jock strap. And then there’s Baron Harkonnen. He’s supposed to be the main villain for the movie. He’s supposed to be threatening and dangerous and scheming. And I suppose he is, but mostly he’s just gross and rambly and handsy. It’s a pity.

One of the major problems with this movie is that the book it’s based on, as I’ve explained above, has enough political wrangling and plotting to put all three Star Wars prequels to shame. That’s not easy to fit into the typical two hour movie format. As a book, and as a series, it makes for a rich, dense world. In a movie it’s so compressed and elided it’s hard to follow. It’s got less than an hour left by the time Paul and Jessica are taken into the desert. That’s a small amount of space to get them in with the Fremen and back to Arrakeen, but everything that happens up until that point is fairly essential either to giving us some hint as to the characters, or setting up the complex plot. It does a lot of telling, not showing, almost out of necessity. To get things to fit into the time we have, we get a scene here, then some voiceover, then a couple of scenes and a wipe and some internal monologue to explain motivation, then another scene and a jump and some voiceover and things just don’t move smoothly at all. We don’t have the 190 minute super extended version, but maybe some day we’ll find it and see just how much more exposition is given and if it makes things feel less rushed and messy. There was a miniseries made as well, not too long ago, and I really quite like that version, but it’s a miniseries and therefore had more time to spend on the story. I enjoyed this tonight, and it doesn’t totally suck by any means, but as it stands, where the book feels like a detailed tapestry, this movie feels like a patchwork quilt. And given the bizarre introduction of a cat with a mouse strapped to it, that must be milked daily as the source of an antidote? Probably a crazy quilt at that.

June 6, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Dune (1984)

June 6, 2010

Dune (1984)

A word before I start this review. I am going to assume a knowledge of the book. There’s too much plot and intricacy in Dune to attempt plot summary and do it any justice. And clearly I’m going to spend a LOT of time in my review talking about the adaptation to film. So if you haven’t read the book yet then perhaps this review will make little sense to you.

I recall seeing this movie in the theaters when it was first released and thinking that is was a confusing and bombastic film full of complex imagery but lacking the impact of the book. I have enormous respect for the source material here. Dune is one of those oft-read books that has deeply affected me over time. In part it has to do with the complex world that Frank Herbert created. It’s one of the greatest epic tales ever written because of all the detail he put into it. Enough story telling to fill volumes, as evidenced by the many posthumous books that his son has published using his notes. There’s the entire back story of the Butlerian Jihad – the reason that in the universe of Dune there are no thinking machines (instead they have the mentats.) There’s the Bene Gesserit and their millennium long breeding program. There’s the spacer’s guild and the navigators. All these factions and all this history – and a sense that in the book of Dune we see the culmination – the intersection of epic galactic forces all reaching their apex.

Beyond all that, however, is the messianic story at the heart of the book. I am fascinated by the dilemma that confronts those who are destined for greatness. The core of Dune for me is the tale of Paul Atraides and his rise to become the Kwisatz Haderach – the final result of the Bene Gesserit program to breed a male who could survive the water of life and see into that place they cannot reach with their minds. His ability to see the future but the difficulty he has manipulating it is really what the whole story is about. How Paul is destined to be the most powerful being in the universe, and all the forces that must come into alignment for this to happen.

One of the flaws in this interpretation of the book, for me at least, lies in the portrayal of the Harkonnen. Vladimir is more gruesome and petty than menacing. He doesn’t appear to be a conniving evil genius or Machiavellian schemer. He’s just disgusting, which doesn’t make him a very worthy adversary. It seems to me that with the scenes of House Harkonnen more than anywhere else David Lynch gives in to his more avant garde tendencies. There’s a lot of strangeness for strangeness sake. (Vladimir floating around cackling madly as an underling caresses some machine and steam shoots up from the floor, for example.) It’s unnerving and odd, yes, like all of Eraserhead distilled into a couple scenes and with a larger budget, but it is NOT menacing. At least I don’t find it so.

Amongst the other things that don’t work for me in this movie are some of the additions that have been made to the source materiel. In particular there’s the “weirding modules” that House Atreides have developed in the movie. The idea of weapons that kill with sound is pretty cool, but makes very little sense in the context of Dune. The whole point of the Fremen is that they are already the ultimate fighting force. They need but the promised leader. Paul’s challenge in the book is less to forge an army than to find a way to stop the rising tide of destruction that they would bring to the universe if left unchecked.

We’re reviewing the theatrical version of this movie, so I cannot really talk about the things from the book that the movie omits. It’s entirely possible that they are explored in the longer extended versions of the movie. But here are some things the movie doesn’t address in the form we own: The source of the water of life. The source of the Sardaukar. The crysknife. The makers (i.e. the tie between the worms and the spice.) Paul’s gambit to force the spacing guild to his will by threatening to destroy the spice. The prophesies spread by the Bene Gesserit to be used by reverend mothers who find themselves lost among the primitives. The reason that lasers are useless against shields.

Sure, it’s all more than could be contained by a movie adaptation. I am fully aware that concessions need to be made. But it’s the spirituality, the sense of a confluence of forces to bring about the creation of something miraculous and deadly, that I feel is missing from the movie. In the end it feels like an action-adventure, although one on a grand scale. Paul’s triumphant return is a big climactic battle, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near to the revelation that it should be or the universe-altering phenomenon that it is in the book.

What this movie is, however, and what I would be remiss to ignore, is a brilliant visual spectacle. Some of the special effects have not aged well, especially the extensive bluescreening in the climactic final battle, which end up taking a lot away from the final confrontation. But the production design and art direction are truly stunning. Especially in the first half of the movie or so you are constantly being exposed to astonishing new ideas. I do like the way they do the shielded fight between Gurney and Paul – it looks to bizarre and otherworldly. I love all the huge and elaborate sets. I will admit that I was often thrown by the sort of extremely alien interpretation of everything from the mentats with their huge eyebrows to the freakishly bald Bene Gesserit. But I don’t mind being challenged by new ideas, and that is one thing that David Lynch and his team have an awful lot of. Bold, strange, alien new ideas. I just wish they could have better served the story of Dune as I see it.

Now I’m off to start reading the book again. Man, I love Dune.

June 6, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment