I Think ‘Dune’ Gave Me a Message From the Deep

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Dune (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/Screenshot)

Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Chang Chen, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa, Javier Bardem, Babs Olusanmokun, Benjamin Clementine

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Running Time: 156 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: October 22, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

I was fully asleep for about the last third of Dune. I thought I was just nodding off, but next thing I know, Timothée Chalamet was heading off into the desert with Zendaya and Rebecca Ferguson as the credits started to roll, and it sure didn’t feel like two and a half hours had passed.

If this sort of thing happened back when I used to work at a movie theater, I would just peek in the next day while working to catch what I missed. Luckily, HBO Max can now serve that purpose for WB flicks, so that’s what I did in this case. Also of note in terms of what happened the day after: I attended an event at my church during which a priest talked about how he’s fine with people nodding off during mass because that means they’re just quietly meditating. Ergo, I was just quietly meditating during the journey on Arrakis.

I don’t think Dune put me to sleep because it was boring. It wasn’t. Rather, it was just so dark and overwhelming. Those spaceships were HUGE! That all contrasts heavily with the protagonist, who’s awfully skinny and named simply Paul. I have an uncle named Paul, and he’s not traversing planets in a quest for the most valuable item in the universe. This is all to say, what we have here is a mix of accessible and gigantic.

Grade: Sure, I’ll Take Another Go-Round in the Desert

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Little Stranger’ is Obscure Gothic Horror in an English Manor

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CREDIT: Nicola Dove/Focus Features

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Properly Disturbing Behavior

Release Date: August 31, 2018 (Moderate)

Many of the crucial events in The Little Stranger are never fully seen. A dog attacks a girl behind a curtain. The bells used to call on the housemaid ring furiously even though nobody is ringing them. And the main character, Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), is plagued by repressed memories and his own unconscious behavior. Or at least that’s what he suspects and what the editing leads us to believe. It all begins with Faraday arriving at Hundreds Hall, a large country manor that wrings plenty of gothic horror out of its perpetual state of dreary English autumn. He is there to treat Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter), a disfigured veteran with PTSD.

The house is a bit of a totem for Faraday, as his mother worked as a maid there when he was a young boy. He is a sort of Jay Gatsby figure, coming from modest means and existing so closely to, yet so far from, the rarefied air of respectable society. Unlike Gatsby, he does not crave glamor so much as acceptance. He has never really been rejected by the type of people he treats, but he still yearns to ensure his place among them. It looks like he has fully secured it via a romance with Roddy’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson). But tragedy is hellbent against a happy ending coming to fruition. And what is the agent of that tragedy? Like so much of this movie, it prefers to keep itself obscure.

The Little Stranger is based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Waters, who also wrote Fingersmith, which was adapted into the 2016 Korean film The Handmaiden. Both films deal with themes of class and traffic in plot twists involving major reversals uncovered by seeing an earlier scene from a different vantage point. The major thrill of The Handmaiden is when it fully reveals its machinations for a mindblowing conclusion. The Little Stranger is much more subdued, to a fault. It asks its audience to soak in its mystery without much hope for full answers. Its craft on its way to the anticlimax is plenty chilling, but it winds up in a corner that is too dark to draw any satisfying conclusion.

The Little Stranger is Recommended If You Like: Some Dreary British Mashup of The Great Gatsby and The Handmaiden

Grade: 3 out of 5 Repressed Memories

This Is a Movie Review: Jennifer Lawrence Goes Deep in the Graphic Spy Thriller ‘Red Sparrow’

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CREDIT: Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey, Mary-Louise Parker

Director: Francis Lawrence

Running Time: 139 Minutes

Rating: R for Nudity as Power, Pleasure, and Disgrace; Spycraft Violence; and Slice-and-Dice, Pounding Torture

Release Date: March 2, 2018

Red Sparrow is the latest spy story that hinges on a final act revelation of a mole. the logic (or lack thereof) of such a twist is something I often can’t make heads or tails out of. The narrative-consuming part of my brain just is not that wired that way. But as far as I can tell, this particular mole’s exposure does pass the plausibility test, though it is not especially impactful. But Red Sparrow’s intrigue thankfully goes beyond any straightforward conception of traitors and double agents. In fact, it questions and pokes at (without quite fully deconstructing) the entire concept of double agency when it involves someone who seems to be an ideal fit for the job but does not want anything to do with professional deception.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury and then faces the crisis of how she will be able to continue to take care of her widowed mother. So her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) recruits her to become a spy at the Red Sparrow School, which essentially requires its trainees to sacrifice their entire identities to the Russian government. Meanwhile, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) gets mixed up with Dominika as he hunts down high-level Russian spies. (He is temporarily suspended after making a huge mistake out in the field, but that does not affect matters as it much as it seems like it is supposed to.) Nash and Dominika’s motivations appear to match up, but of course there is that age-old question: can opposing sides truly trust each other when working together? In this case, the answer actually does appear to be yes, and a more pressing question is: is it possible for individuals to get what they want when insidious bureaucratic forces are pulling the strings everywhere?

Fundamentally driving Red Sparrow and several of its characters is the idea that the Cold War never really ended (it just broke into many pieces, as one of them puts it). That may sound a little over-the-top for a film aiming for some degree of verisimilitude, but then you see what former KGB agent Vladimir Putin is up to, and all the alleged Russian hacking in foreign elections, and on second thought, maybe this does not sound so farfetched at all. Even if it did, it would be perfectly legitimate to put something insanely conspiratorial on film. The problem is that we have seen this sort of cinematic Russian subterfuge plenty of times before.

That familiarity is overcome a decent amount by Charlotte Rampling, whose performance sets the tone for the state of modern Russian spycraft. She is the headmistress of the Sparrow School, and she insists that you call her “Matron.” We have seen this sort of officious, beat-you-down-and-re-mold-you character in plenty of other iterations, but Rampling brings a level of camp and matter-of-factness hitherto unseen. Not only, in her parlance, is every person “a puzzle of need,” but also so many people today are “drunk on shopping and social media,” which would normally sound irritatingly reductive but comes off as venomously delicious when she says it.

Red Sparrow’s most lasting impact is derived less from espionage and more from its examination of human behavior and interpersonal power dynamics. There are several scenes featuring graphic torture and nudity (including rape and attempted rape), and they do not come off as simply exploitative, because they are there to elucidate the effects they have on individuals. It is heavily implied that Sparrows are really groomed from birth to give themselves over entirely to the government. They are indoctrinated that their bodies are not their own, that they must give themselves up to give their marks exactly what they want in service of a greater power. Dominika, while in many ways an ideal recruit, never fully gives in. She decides that she is willing to make her body available, but she maintains a level of resistance. When naked, she asserts her power, which is resonant in the Me Too era (and eternally so) and metatextually, it works as a statement from Lawrence, herself a victim of a nude photo hack, that she will work this intimately only on her own terms. Thanks to her steely performance, Red Sparrow works as a defense of the dignity of every individual human being.

Red Sparrow is Recommended If You Like: The Americans, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Oppressed women taking control, Oppressed citizens taking control, Frightening headmistresses, Torture scenes with a purpose

Grade: 3 out of 5 Floppy Disks

This Is a Movie Review: The Sense of an Ending

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This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2017.

Starring: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Dockery

Director: Ritesh Batra

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Serious Matters Confronted with British Reservation

Release Date: March 10, 2017 (Limited)

In The Sense of an Ending, Jim Broadbent plays Anthony Webster, the owner of a boutique camera shop who must confront the sins of his past after an old acquaintance passes away and includes him in the will. I would vote for the focus to be waxing nostalgic about vintage Nikons and Kodaks, but alas, the narrative switches back and forth between the present day and Tony’s young adulthood, when he was courting a girl who eventually pursued one of his friends instead. There ends up being a tangle of long-ago secrets that it takes way too long to make sense of.

The film does not engender mystery so much as simmer in its ambiguity. Dinner scenes involve questions being asked and only being answered after staring into space for what feels like an eternity. Is this that famous British reservation, or just tentative filmmaking? If it is the former, the angst of what is left unsaid should be painfully felt, but that is just not the case, at least not until Charlotte Rampling shows up about halfway through. As the present-day version of Tony’s ex-flame, she says more with a piercing glance than the entirety of the flashbacks.

In the midst of sorting out his past, Tony is also on the verge of becoming a grandfather. He accompanies his daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) to birthing classes, as the father is completely out of the picture. Susie warns Dad not to make any offensive remark about a lesbian couple in the class, as overly cautious children are wont to worry that their parents will go rogue. But Tony not only keep his tongue in check, he becomes fast friends with the couple. And it is not because of any fetishistic desire to diversify his circle. He just happens to be a sociable fellow who likes talking to people. Funny that his daughter doesn’t know that.

Anyway, I would much prefer if The Sense of an Ending were the adventures of Dad and the Lesbians. At least Tony ends up more reliably friendly than he was in his salad days. Perhaps he can take solace in that ending.

The Sense of an Ending is Recommended If You LikeAtonement But Wish It Had Been Difficult to Follow

Grade: 2 out of 5 Angry Letters