Dune

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing images, sequences of strong violence, and suggestive material
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Sci-fi drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, monsters, guns, knives, many characters injured and killed including major characters and sad death of a parent, some scary and graphic images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
If some of the elements of “Dune” feel familiar to you, it is because the book series it is based on was published in the 1960s and epics have been drawing from it ever since, just as it drew on Hero With a Thousand Faces legends of young heroes up against impossible odds and evil villains with the help of wise counselors and beautiful romantic partners, and sociopolitical history. If it feels incomplete to you it is because it ends not in the middle of the story but at the end of the beginning; it is something of an origin story that just begins to set up the bigger story to come. If it feels confusing to you it is because you have not read the long, dense, intricate books, in which case I suggest this very helpful background from New York Magazine’s Vulture website. It might also be because you saw the cult-y earlier movie version from cult-y director David Lynch. The one with Sting.

But while you may be pondering those ifs, you will be stunned and amazed by the astonishing worlds on the screen (please see it on IMAX if you can do so safely), one of the most remarkable examples of cinematic world-building magic ever made, thanks to “Arrival” duo director Denis Villeneuve and art director Patrice Vermette.

Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the son of a powerful Duke (Oscar Isaac) who is loyal to the emperor and his beloved concubine, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is a member of a group called Bene Gesserit. They are a secretive, nun-like group with magical powers. Remember how Obi-wan Kenobi told the imperial guard “These are not the droids you are looking for” and the guard bought it? The Bene Gesserit has powers like that only to do it they have to use a low-pitched growly voice.

So Paul comes from political and financial power on one side and mystical power on the other, quite a potent mix and as a teenager he is still sorting it all out, especially some weird and possibly predictive dreams he has been having.

The emperor makes a controversial decision to remove one of the Duke’s rival houses, House Harkonnen, from the extremely lucrative desert planet Arrakis, where they have accumulated incalculable wealth from the planet’s precious resource, called spice, by exploiting the environment and abusing the planet’s residents, the Fremen, who are now mostly hiding out literally underground. He orders the Duke to take over, and the Duke and his family dutifully obey. Needless to say, House Harkonnen and its leader the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård in Jabba the Hutt mode) is angry. This means Paul has to contend with all the usual teenage angst and identity issues plus the angry Fremen and possibly some traitorous insiders.

A couple of other points: Arrakis has some indigenous animal life, including a cute mouse creature and some gigantic and extremely scary and lethal sand worms, with mouth-like openings the size of a circus tent. They are attracted to — of all things — rhythmic sounds, like…footsteps. And spice is extremely valuable and can turn users’ eyes blue.

Even if you are confused, you can still be drawn into the story because it is clear who the good and bad and good/bad characters are and who we are supposed to root for. And the visuals are so compelling that the confusing parts make us more curious than frustrated. It is overlong for an origin story, but made with so much thought and story-telling mastery that I’m confident the next chapter will be even better.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild language, some sexual references, and extended sometimes bloody violence including weapons and poison. Major characters are injured and killed, including a parent.

Family discussion: What historic events may have inspired this story? What elements of the story inspired later classic movies?

If you like this, try: The books by Frank Herbert and others like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Foundation Trilogy

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Ron’s Gone Wrong

Posted on October 21, 2021 at 5:15 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some rude material, thematic elements and language
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril nd violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright 2021 20th Century
“Ron’s Gone Wrong,” the first feature from Locksmith Animation, has excellent voice talent but average character design and storyline. And it is unfortunately similar in theme to other films including the recent and much better “Mitchells vs. the Machines.” Its heart is in the right place and it is reasonably entertaining for children but forgettable.

Like “Short Circuit,” it is the story of a malfunctioning robot that is better than a correctly functioning robot because its imperfections make it more human and relatable, more “real.” The storyline is reminiscent of many other films including “Big Hero 6” and “E.T.”

Barney (voiced by the terrific Jack Dylan Grazer of “Shazam”) lives with his single dad, Graham (Ed Helms), and his Bulgarian grandmother Donka (Oscar-winner Olivia Coleman). Money is tight, and Graham, while devoted to his son, is often distracted and worried.

Marc (Justice Smith) is a young tech whiz who has a big announcement at his Apple-like computer company. He is presenting his latest invention, the ultimate accessory, a rolling robot friend, a cross between the Amazon Echo, the Apple Watch, Al Capp’s Shmoos, and Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet.” While Marc’s plan is just to create a machine that will learn all about its owners so it can be ever-interested, ever-responsive, an ideal companion. His colleague Andrew (Rob Delaney) sees the purpose of the cute little B-Bots differently. All that information about your background and preferences you so willingly share with your B-Bot? Andrew is going to make a ton of money selling it!

Barney feels like an outcast at school. His teacher pushes him to sit on the “Buddy Bench” at recess to let his classmates know he would like to make a friend, but he feels humiliated. All the other kids have B-Bots, which they use for everything from “influencer” social media posts to games, communication, so much of social interaction that they have just about forgotten how to talk to each other directly. But Barney does not have a bot because his father cannot afford it.

And then it is his birthday, and Donka surprises him with a bot, except that this one is unauthorized because it was damaged falling off a truck. That is Ron (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), and he and Barney begin to get to know one another, Ron’s mistakes, mostly from being overly literal, only endear him to his new owner/friend.

So, unlike Ron, as far as the script goes all the pieces are in place for Barney and his classmates to learn some lessons about friendship and not relying on social media for feedback and approval and for some of the grown-ups to learn some lessons about priorities and the risks of capitalism. It all unfolds as expected with not enough original moments along the way. The movie needs to learn its own lesson that a safe, predictable by-the-numbers formula is a little boring.

Parents should know that this movie has some schoolyard language and some peril and mild violence. Barney is mourning his late mother.

Family discussion: Why was it hard for Barney to make friends? What else could he have done? Would you like to have a B-Bot? What would you do with it?

If you like this, try: “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”

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The French Dispatch

Posted on October 20, 2021 at 10:00 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language, graphic nudity, and some sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence including kidnapping of a child and a shoot-out, student uprising
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 22, 2021

Copyright 2021 Searchlight
The dictionary has two conflicting definitions for the word “precious,” and both apply to writer/director Wes Anderson’s films as a group and to his latest, “The French Dispatch” especially. “Precious” can mean very valuable or important, deserving of being carefully preserved. And it can also mean excessively refined or affected. If you are an Anderson fan, you will be glad to hear this is the Wes Anderson-iest Wes Anderson film so far. If you are not, well, you’ve been warned.

Anderson’s exquisitely assembled films are more Cornell Box or M.C. Escher puzzle than narrative, the props and settings more important than the characters or storyline. I enjoy the attention to detail and the whimsy of his films, occasionally spiced with moments of, sorry, il faut parler français por un instant, “choquer le bourgeois.” I love his repertory cast of actors, who are always clearly having a blast and not quite winking at the audience. But I also find them claustrophobic, and overly precious in both senses of the word, speaking to those who feel smug about understanding them in a way they believe ordinary, less sophisticated people can not. Like that French I used just now, which by the way means: “it is necessary to speak French for a minute to ‘shock the ordinary people.'” See? It works just fine en englais. Anderson seems to aim for whimsy but one thing whimsy cannot be is heavy-handed.

Anderson has found the idea subject for “The French Dispatch,” a real-life publication almost as precious (still in both senses of the word) as his fantasized characters and environments, The New Yorker, and in particular the New Yorker of the romanticized era of the mid-20th century. There is a long list of New Yorker writers and editors who are listed in the end credits, including the two legendary editors, co-founder and editor from 1925-1951 Harold Ross and William Shawn, editor from 1952-1987 (and father of writer/actor Wallace Shawn).

The film is both an anthology and a retrospective, again Anderson’s preferred matryoshka Russian nesting doll narrative structure. Is with the death of the title publication’s founder and editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), a “Citizen Kane” style set-up that continues with peeks inside some of the magazine’s classic stories, delivered as chapters. The setting is the fictional French town of “Ennui-sur-Blasé” (ennui and blasé both French words adopted by English speakers meaning world-weary and bored). The premise is a look inside an issue of the magazine, which, following the orders of its founder, will cease publication after his death. In another layer of matryoskha, The New Yorker reported that the parallels between its real-life articles and the film include: Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), inspired by writer Joseph Mitchell. Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody), inspired by Lord Duveen, the subject of a 1951 six-part New Yorker profile by S. N. Behrman. Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), inspired by James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling. Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), inspired by Mavis Gallant, who wrote a two-part 1968 piece on the student uprisings in France.

There are stories within stories as we see the writers discuss what they have written. J. K. L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, fabulously, of course) delivers a lecture to an audience with slides showing the work of an acclaimed artist (Benecio del Toro) who happens to be criminally insane and confined to prison, where his muse and nude model is one of the guards (Léa Seydoux). Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) is a steely observer of student unrest who gets involved with one of the young leaders (Timothée Chalamet). The strongest of the stories has Jeffrey Wright as Roebuck Wright, who can perfectly recall every word he has written and is invited by a television interviewer (Liev Schreiber) to recite from memory his very convoluted story about the kidnapping of young boy. Wright’s melodious, slightly husky voice in Anderson’s near-monotone style set opposite a story of grotesque twists and turns tilts toward precious in the second sense of the word, but the sheer charisma of the design, with Anderson’s signature dollhouse-style cutaways, has some of the first meaning of the word as well.

Parents should know that this film has sexual references and non-explicit situations, some strong language, and some peril and violence, including a kidnapping, poison, and a shoot-out with many characters injured and killed.

Family discussion: Which of the stories did you like best?

If you like this, try: “The Life Acquatic with Steve Zissou,” “The Royal Tennenbaums,” and the books about the New Yorker by James Thurber and Brendan Gill

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The Last Duel

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 9:49 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense medieval combat violence, characters injured and killed, brutal rape, graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright 20th Century 2021
“The Last Duel” is well-intentioned but ponderous and pretentious. It wants to be about the different perceptions of its three main characters, telling the same story three times. But for the viewer it is about the different perceptions of its actor-screenwriters, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon and its director, Ridley Scott, who seem to be making different movies. The screenwriters wanted to tell a story about honor, truth, misogyny, and justice. Scott wanted to tell a story about medieval combat. You can tell from the title which side won.

Like the classic “Rashomon,” this is the story of a rape and a death told from three different points of view. Damon and Affleck wrote the segments of the two male characters in the story, and the third segment, the point of view of the woman involved, was written by indie writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

It is based on real historical events, the last officially recognized “judicial duel,” meaning a battle to the death to determine the outcome of a trial, fought in France. The duel was fought in 1386, based on the notion that God would not let the combatant telling the truth lose the fight.

At one point the two men were friends, but they were very different. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) was a knight (he gets very angry when his hard-won title is not recognized). He was extremely brave and firmly dedicated to his ideals of honor. We first see him disobeying orders and going into battle to prevent the slaughter of innocent citizens. He was not educated and could not read or write his name. After his wife and son died, he married Marguerite (Jodie Comer) the daughter of a wealthy but disgraced (for supporting the losing side in the war) man. She was well-educated and they were genuinely affectionate and devoted.

Squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) was well-educated in languages, literature, and numbers. He was something of a libertine, encouraged by his patron (Affleck), Pierre d’Alençon, a powerful nobleman, after Le Gris ingratiated himself by straightening out the books and collecting the back taxes.

Marguerite tells her husband that when he was away Le Gris came to their home and raped her. Rape, at the time, was not considered an assault on the woman but a crime against the man in her life. She was seen as his property and it was he who was damaged by the degrading attack. Marguerite is encouraged not to tell anyone by her mother-in-law, who admits that she was once raped as well. To accuse a man so close to the nobility is dangerous. But de Carrouges has courage in life as he does in battle and a sense of honor — plus some more personal grievances against Le Gris — that will not allow him to pretend it did not happen. He knows Le Gris’ patron will protect him, so he takes the case to the king. And that is what takes us back to the joust we glimpse at the beginning of the film. If de Carrouges wins, that means God has protected him for telling the truth. If Le Gris wins, then he will be deemed to have told the truth and Marguerite will be burned for falsely accusing him.

Scott does a great job with the combat scenes and special credit goes to DP Dariusz Wolski and especially to the sound crew for some of the all-time great clanky sounds as swords strike shields and armor. Unfortunately, the dialogue is even more clanky. Affleck and Damon, whose Bahston townie talk in “Good Will Hunting” was both believable and exceptionally sharp, have made the dialogue in this film heavy with clumsy exposition. The reiteration of the story does not add as much as it thinks it does, and ultimately becomes tedious and heavy-handed. And the hair and make-up may be based on historic styles, but Affleck, as the louche embodiment of white privilege, has a blonde surfer look while Damon has an unfortunate mullet that goes with his unfortunately superficial character. This is the second time in a row that he has tried to convince us he’s an uneducated person of limited experience and both movies suffer from his efforts.

Parents should know that this film has strong, bloody violence with medieval combat and disturbing and grisly images. There is some strong language, explicit sexual situations with nudity and a brutal rape, and alcohol.

Family discussion: Why does de Carrouges decide to believe Marguerite? Given the ideas at the time, was his mother right?

If you like this, try: “Gladiator”

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Needle in a Timestack

Posted on October 14, 2021 at 5:30 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and references to violence including an accidental death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 15, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
“Needle in a Timestack” has an intriguing twist on the time travel genre. Ever since the originals, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to “The Time Machine” and up to “Back to the Future,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” “About Time,” and “Avengers: Endgame,” we almost always see time travel through the eyes of the travelers. The stories are about their goals, their discoveries, their impact. But in “Needle in a Timestack,” based on the story by Robert Silverberg, time travel is, unsurprisingly, extremely expensive, and thus available only to the very wealthy.

The main character is Nick (Leslie Odom, Jr.), and early in the film we see him at a meeting in his office, the boss and staff seated around a table in a conference room, and they are talking about ordinary business topics. But then something that looks like a virtual tsunami washes over the room. What is most surprising about it is that everyone acts as though it happens all the time. It turns out to be something like a temporal sonic boom, the backwash of some wealthy person’s time travel.

As we all know from concepts like “the butterfly effect” and many other time travel movies, the slightest difference a time traveler creates in the past can have enormous impact in the present day. Nick’s response to this evidence that someone has been tampering with time is to make sure that what he values most is still the same. And what he values most is his wife, Janine (Cynthia Erivo, and I cannot be the only person watching this film who wishes it was a musical, with both stars legendary Broadway singers). He calls her to make sure she is still the Janine he knows, the one who loves him and is committed to their life together.

There is a reason he is anxious about this. Nick and Janine were part of a group of friends in college, and Nick suspects that another member of the group, an extremely wealthy man named Tommy (Orlando Bloom), who was once married to Janine, may be using time travel to get her back, not by wooing her in the present but by preventing her from falling in love with Nick in the past. As science fiction writer David Brin says, time travel stories are all about “make it didn’t happen.”

Writer-director John Ridley gives the film a lived-in look. This is not one of those futuristic settings where everything is shiny and spotless and people wear clothes made of some fabric that has not been invented yet. Nick and Janine live in a world very much like the one we know and when we finally see how the time travel experience works, there are no fancy contraptions with spinning dials and Tesla coils. It is almost like a spa and its very ordinariness makes the story more intimate and compelling. The connection between Nick and Janine is powerful enough we think — and hope — it can survive any attempt to interfere with it. But it is clear that the tension caused by the risk of “didn’t happen” may have a destructive impact with or without Tommy’s involvement.

No one in science or fiction has figured out a way around the inevitable paradoxes of time travel, and this movie does not withstand too much attention to its internal logic. And some characters feel padded or distracting. But as a variation of Orpheus and Eurydice with some economic justice issues added in plus the electricity between the two stars (please put them in a musical together, please), its deep, unabashed romanticism makes it a worthy watch.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, an off-screen accidental death, and some mature themes.

Family discussion: If you could go back in time, what would you do? What would you change? What do you think someone else would change that could affect your life?

If you like this, try: “About Time” and “Reminiscence”

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