Archive for Denis Villeneuve

Damn this sand! When will it ever end?

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2021 by dcairns
Dave Bautista

I fondly recall my sister telling me about seeing David Lynch’s DUNE with her boyfriend of the time, who was the worst at following movie plots, and kept up a constant stream of “Who’s that again?” throughout. DUNE is, I guess, fairly challenging to the narratively-challenged.

No such issues when Fiona and I traipsed over to the Vue Ocean Terminal (former the Ster Century, or Monster Sanctuary as we called it) to see Denis Villeneuve’s version. Just a sigh of “That was so BORING, I thought I was going to fall asleep,” from Fiona at the end.

When DV’s BLADE RUNNER sequel came out and tanked, I think I said “I guess we won’t get to see his DUNE then.” But maybe the contracts had already been signed and couldn’t be broken? Or maybe those strange people at Legendary Films just wanted to see what he’d do with it.

For purposes of this article I will, like everyone else, pretend John Harrison’s TV miniseries doesn’t exist, even though I met JH and both his stars and they were all very nice. Haven’t seen the show.

Stellan Skarsgard

The new DUNE suffers from Roman Epic Syndrome, where you have a very far-off culture to portray and it makes it hard to humanize the characters so we can get involved emotionally. It’s not actually a problem for the culture to be very different from ours, but it’s a problem for the characters to lack recognisable behaviour. In Old Hollywood the denaturalising of the performances was actually a deliberate policy, born of some kind of crazed belief that ancient history and/or the Bible require a particular performance style, declamatory and wooden, exemplified, indeed apotheosised, by Chuckles Heston in DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS. So that when Peter Ustinov blew on his soup in, was it QUO VADIS?, he was told the gesture was too modern. “In what era, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” asked Ustinov, reasonably. On BEN-HUR, there was a lively screenwriter’s debate about which was better, “Is the food not to your liking?” or “Don’t you like your dinner?” The former won out. It is not any more genuinely ancient-world than the alternative.

Lynch’s DUNE is plagued by several problems: by taking no heed of the demands of running time when he wrote it long, and then allowed for further improvisations when shooting, lengthening it more, Lynch saved up a problem for the edit which slammed him badly. The rough cuts of ERASERHEAD and THE ELEPHANT MAN had been very long, so he thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but those movies have pretty sparse plots. DUNE has all these damn FACTIONS. If you cut one scene you have to shoehorn the exposition it once contained someplace else. Hence all those internal monologues, where even comparatively minor character like Max Von Sydow whisper their thoughts to their chums, the audience. Going hand-in-hand with this is a palpable panic and loss of confidence, so that some of these VOs are spectacularly redundant, insulting and alienating: Francesca Annis leaves the room, thinking her son will be killed; she comes back and sees him alive; looks relieved. And her voice on the soundtrack helpfully remarks: “My son — LIVES!” Which is also an unsayable line.

Villeneuve’s DUNE, like Lynch’s, begins with an info-dump, and it’s a far less charming and arresting one than Virginia Madsen’s starfield piece-to-camera in the Lynch. It throws in some battle scenes (one day we’ll see a version of Frank Herbert’s book where we don’t see Arrakis until Paul does) and I bet most audiences don’t absorb a tenth of the info dumped on them, too busy admiring the pictures. But, generally, the new film is less anxious for us to understand things, which is good. “As writer, you must deliver your story points,” said Herr Wilder, “but the elegance with which you deliver them is the measure of how good you are.” Or words to that effect. The Villeneuve doesn’t fall prey to Lynch’s clumsinesses.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have ANY of his eccentricity, which is what makes the Lynch film lively and engaging. I found myself missing Kyle MacLachlan’s bluff heartiness. I really felt, even though it was oversold, that his Paul Atreides really LIKES his buddies in House Atreides. With Timotei Shalamar, I’m not even sure he likes his mom.

Timotei Shalimar and friends

Lynch’s gallery of grotesques pop out of the screen: only the Emperor is a stiff. Kenneth McMillan (who we recently enjoyed in Salem’s Lot), Paul L. Smith, Freddie Jones, Brad Dourif, Alicia Witt… When Sting, who was quite prepared to play his shower scene nude, was asked to wear a golden eagle codpiece, he refused. They wore him down, but he eventually agreed to paste the bird to his junk only if he could play the part as the kind of guy who WOULD wear a crotch-accipitrid in the shower. And they LET him. Patrick Stewart, one of the less lurid performers, nevertheless goes into battle clutching a tiny pug. Freddie Jones has a scene, only included in the various unsigned extended cuts, has a scene at the end that’s heart-breaking and bizarre. Nothing in the new film stirs the empathy.

Villeneuve likes underplaying, and casts good underplayers, and attains a consistency Lynch doesn’t even seem to value as a goal. With the result that, though we get a Paul who’s convincingly teenage (he’s around the same age MacLachlan was, but slighter), we don’t meet anyone we’d like to eat dinner with. Rebecca Ferguson gets some actual emotion into it, and Javier Bardem shows actual star intensity, briefly waking things up. Stellan Skarsgård, a sort of grudging, inward-aiming actor, is a very dull substitute for the illustrious McMillan, who made intergalactic scheming while unplugging the hearts of twinks look like THE BEST FUN.

“I was so bored by those dream sequences…” Fiona complained. And they are boring, in the Villeneuve, even though they’re full of ACTION. But it’s action that doesn’t mean anything to us yet. I wouldn’t have thought prophecy could be as tedious than backstory, but apparently it can amount to the same thing. The Lynch film’s prophecies were shot by Frederick Elmes, his ERASERHEAD and future BLUE VELVET DoP. “We had one of those crisis meetings and I told them,” said Freddie Francis, DUNE’s veteran cinematographer, “that if Freddie Elmes shoots another frame of film I’m quitting. They didn’t fire him, though, they kept him around shooting drops of water.” But, with all respect to FF, who was old-school experienced and super-talented, Elmes’ epic drips are among the film’s most memorable images.

Villeneuve’s future dreams ultimately cheat the audience by NOT coming true, not really. It’s a bigger swindle than the time-shift of ARRIVAL, which works emotionally but is dirty pool, playing with the audience for no reason except to kick us in the heart.

Villeneuve’s big advantage over Lynch is that he gets a longer runtime to tell half the story, so he’s not forced into the damaging compressions that occluded his predecessor’s vision. He doesn’t always use his time sensibly, though. The character of Shadout Mapes appears in both films, and her entire role is to get nearly killed by a flying needle, then genuinely killed by a big knife. Oh, and in this version she gives Paul’s mom another knife. Why is this cleaning woman included? I sort of like the democratic instinct that would make a cleaning woman a character in a space epic, but you might as well also feature an Arrakis dogcatcher, the House Harkonnen’s PR guy, a Fremen dishwasher, and I’ll commend you for it IF you find anything for them to do.

Lynch’s DUNE, like most of his movies, looks awfully white, and Villeneuve corrects that in multiple ways, though most of the POC are dead by the time we’re told “This is just the beginning.” His film has scale (although the ornithopters can’t help but look tiny), great design (though tending to the monochromatic), it’s beautiful to look at. But I find I prefer most of Lynch’s faults to most of Villeneuve’s virtues.

Less Human Than Human

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2017 by dcairns

One line of thought. Probably spurious. On seeing Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL right after the 2016 presidential election, I was struck by how it felt like an optimistic statement — despite our stupid differences, humankind manage cooperate among ourselves and with the strolling heptapods — a movie aimed at that branch of the multiverse where Hillary won. BLADE RUNNER 2049, arriving hot on its heels (how did he manage that?) — with its polluted, post-nuclear police state, is aimed squarely at the Trump Parallel. Since escapism sells, it was ARRIVAL that was the hit.

It’s like somebody said about Kubrick: 2001 was the future we could have had; CLOCKWORK ORANGE was what we were going to get.

As shot by Roger Deakins — excuse me, Roger A. Deakins (where did the A come from?) — 2049 looks really good — I mean, REALLY good — and the performances are excellent, with a very committed Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford and an interesting bunch of relative newcomers supporting them. Poor Robin Wright has to find a new way to play an ice queen, but ever resourceful, she does it. And the story is OK — it avoids the Damon Lindelof approach of simply reconfiguring the original elements and rehashing them out of sequence with the roles switched. But we were vaguely engaged without being particularly excited by the movie.

We’d just seen a bunch of movie trailers and they were ALL for sequels, two of them superhero franchises, one of them the JUMANJI reboot (which seemed to show the most originality, grading on a curve). And BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a superior sort of belated sequel — it’s largely faithful to its source, and not only reproduces familiar design elements (the recurring Mayan kitchen) but concocts new ones that seem quite in keeping as well as being beautiful in themselves (dustbowl Vegas, Dave Bautista’s brown lounge). It has a precise sense of the original’s sick, slightly kinky violence, gialloesque, chilling and inventive. But we didn’t care too much.

There are clever touches — the ads for Atari and Pan-Am that “date” the original film are repeated, and a “Product of CCCP” logo confirms that this is an alternate future, so that it doesn’t matter that Leon’s incept date was 2017 in the first movie, and yet artificial Brion Jameses are not available in the shops this Christmas. The Peugeot and Sony signs are pure product placement, though — I only hope the well-documented (by me, right now) Curse of Blade Runner will swoop down and send those corporations spiralling into administration the way it did to the games company and the airline. But clever touches don’t necessarily make us care about a movie’s characters or story or even themes.

Impossible to explain such a visceral thing, and I’m not certain our response is of any use to anyone else — best to provisionally accept the positive things listed above and see it for yourself. It’s worth seeing.

I guess one problem is that the movie does seem to aim for a fairly straightforward kind of emotional appeal in its ending, and that somehow didn’t come off for us. And even if it had, I think it would have been less interesting than the original movie. Ridley Scott’s films tries halfheartedly to be about Rick Deckard but comes to life when dealing with Roy Batty, a much more original hero with a more pressing problem to solve. The fact that his methods are “questionable” just makes him more interesting. And while the movie’s attempts to find an emotional arc for Deckard are so ineffectual that the subsequent director’s cuts (two of them?) can chop off his last scene and nobody misses it, the emotions it rouses for Batty are, though conflicted, huge and operatic — that’s why I used a frame grab of the elevator scene in my previous BR post. Batty has just killed his father — God — and is breathing deeply of the strange new possibilities around him — while at the same time falling, falling, away from the heavens.

To get anywhere near that, 2049 would have to have been about its own most interesting, scary and transgressive character, Luv, ferociously played by Sylvia Hoeks. But she is very far from being even the chief antagonist — she’s a henchwoman for Jared Leto. And Leto’s wacko billionaire is the film’s most hackneyed element, and nonsensical to boot — always complaining that replicants are too difficult to manufacture, while randomly killing perfectly good replicants every time we see him.

The first film is about all kinds of stuff, but as Batty’s story resonates most deeply, it seems to mainly be about mortality. The second film seems to be almost straightforwardly about slavery — an important subject in the first movie too, but a less universal one. And in the original, since the replicants are escapees when we first meet them, slavery is relegated to backstory and is less an active theme. Death is the problem. In this sequel, our hero is a slave — maybe we need more convincing information about how he breaks his programming? But the story of his gradual growth beyond the limits imposed on him should be touching. I do actually hold out hope that this may kick in more on a second viewing.

2049 is a kind of replicant movie — beautiful, complex, elegant, closely resembling what it’s modelled on and undeniably made with enormous skill — but crucially lacking some important, indefinable inner ingredient. If the first film is cold — and it is — but possessed of some kind of weird, nameless Wagnerian emotion of its own — the sequel tries to do something commendable but less interesting — tell a touching human story — and doesn’t really quite manage it. (The two times I did feel some emotion: early on when we see Gosling’s K being the victim of prejudice; when he loses his cyber-partner; when he sees her porno billboard Doppelganger. Which suggests that Ford’s excellent performance is essentially a distraction from what should be Gosling’s movie.)

“I suppose that was the best BLADE RUNNER sequel we could ask for,” mused Fiona, doubtfully. But we never asked for one. “Well, maybe if they’d hired the OTHER writer,*” I mused, just as doubtfully.

*David Peoples, co-writer of BLADE RUNNER, also co-wrote THE UNFORGIVEN and 12 MONKEYS. Hampton Fancher, co-writer of BLADE RUNNER and 2049, is a former flamenco dancer once married to Sue Lyon, which is also pretty cool.

Into the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2016 by dcairns


Having enjoyed ARRIVAL, we went back in time and watched director Denis Villeneuve’s previous hit. SICARIO. It’s very impressive, but we were less convinced by the “human killing machine” tropes which climax it than we had been by the hellish drug war developments of the first two acts. Shot by the always-impressive Roger Deakins, it has a more classical style than ARRIVAL (Deakins weaned the Coens off the wide angle lens, and seems to have drawn Villeneuve away from extreme depth of field long lens stuff, but I’ll have to see even earlier Villeneuves to know if my guess is accurate) with several of the impressive dusk scenes that distinguished NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (cartoon violence by comparison with this). The above image is just about all we see of a harrowing torture scene — imagination does the rest.


And then there’s this one, which recalls the closing shot of FULL METAL JACKET. The deceptive approach to perspective is an incidental pleasure which may not mean anything: the foreground figures’ bulk emphasises their closeness, but the low angle and silhouette effect makes them seem to be the same distance away as the line of smaller figures. Giants and dwarfs walking together. A Wellesian defiance of space, in the service of graphic impact.


But the fact that, as the figures advance, they sink below the horizon line, swallowed up by the same liquid darkness they’re composed of, gives the sequence a doom-laden quality, as if the men are descending into the Underworld, or beneath the surface of a dark ocean. Chills.