Friday, November 26, 2021

Movie Reviews: Dune (2021), Eternals, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, The Father, King Richard, Pixie, Spencer

Dune (2021) - As an aside, I saw this in a 4X movie theater, and I can tell you that 4X movie theaters are not worth the extra cost. Every once in a while my seat vibrated, slightly distracting me from the movie. Then I felt the seat kicking me in my bottom (there are kids who will do that for free in regular movie theaters). Finally, during a huge rain scene on film, I felt a slight mist in the theater. Skip the 4X.

On the other hand, this is a huge, well-made sci-fi film of multiple worlds that deserves to be seen in a theater. As for the story and characters, the director Dennis Villeneuve and the rest of the staff do a great job enabling the characters to emerge. The story retains its essential form while being accessible to people who have not read (or forgot) the book, at least I think so: it's possible that the emperor sending troops to aid the Harkonnens' fight against the Atreides might get lost on someone who never read the book, which is important but not critical (at least to this movie, which is only the first half of the novel).

The story: Dune is a planet with an important spice that enables interstellar travel, while also turning blue the eyes of anyone who hangs around it for a while. The planet is nearly entirely desert, with little water and little life. However, there are some desert mice, some huge-ass sandworms that detect the slightest movement on the surface, and the freemen, nomadic and (essentially) Bedouin native warriors who resent the presence of the spice mining operations of the empire.

The emperor kicks the Harkonnens off of the planet, for some reason, and sends the Atreides faction to continue the operations, but it looks like they might have been sent to fail. The Harkonnens sabotaged some of the equipment, and they (and the emperor) later attack the Atriedes on Dune.

Meanwhile, Duke Atreides wife Jessica is a Bene Gesserit, some kind of mystic with mental powers in a long line of trained woman mystics, who has a son, Paul, that she has trained in these ways, much to the annoyance of the rest of the Bene Gesserit. She did so because she thinks Paul may be the fulfillment of a thousand years of prophesy. Simultaneously, Paul seems to fulfill some freeman signs of being a prophet, too. And he is having visions of a freeman woman he will meet and wed, and maybe die in her arms?

Timothee Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and others do fine jobs: not too mopey, not too dreamy, not too chaotic. Effects, music, and cinematography do what they should. It's not the greatest film of this decade, but it works and I enjoyed it. I am looking forward to part 2.

Eternals - This boring entry into the Marvel universe is a collection of Marvel scenes apparently written by (not exceptional) 12 year olds. Once again we have a bunch of "super"heroes with undefined powers that can do anything, except when the plot wants these powers to not work so well, so as to provide some tension (didn't work). Once again immortal and invulnerable non-human beings run through every human emotion and die from human fatal wounds like asphyxiation (although they don't breathe) and chest wounds (although they have no circulation or blood). Once again a Marvel movie tries, and fails, to explain why super-powerful beings did nothing while the other movies played out ("not getting involved in Earth events" is not an excuse for not stopping Thanos). Now, suddenly, they seem to care about humans, but they did not, apparently, during the last five millennia. Once again a Marvel movie fails to explain where all the other Marvel superheroes are at an event that threatens the entire planet Earth; some of these other superheroes are gods, right? And, once again, a Marvel movie glosses over massive destruction that should wipe out a planet; instead the destruction affects only a few miles around it.

The characters are fine, but one dimensional. The Marvel humor runs shallow. The plot makes an attempt, at least: the Eternals have to choose between helping keep humans alive on Earth or helping a celestial be born, which is their actual mission. So there is some, slight, moral dilemma. Otherwise, whatever.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye - I knew very little about televangelists and about prosperity gospel before this movie, and only a little about Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, played beautifully by Andrew Garfield and Jessica Chastain. Based on the documentary of the same name, this film must have involved a lot of input from Tammy Faye, who is portrayed quite sympathetically, as is televangelism in general.

The story is how the two met in college, where Jim was promoting the idea that wealth = God's blessing, and so they should make money by promoting God. Various other televangelists and other kinds of ministers have other ideas (with this and with each other), so, while, on the whole, they are all working to turn people from sin and to Christianity, they also present different, sometimes contradictory methods and messages in different styles. The Bakers end up collaborating with and butting heads with others. For example, Tammy believes in loving everyone, including homosexuals, and bringing them closer to God, while Jerry Falwell and others reject this idea.

The movie covers the financial fraud and theft by Jim Baker, as well as his (and others) possible homosexual dalliances. It skips some of the nastier things that the Bakers and other prosperity preachers did, such as telling the poorest people to take out bankrupting loans to give them (the Bakers) money as proof of their belief. This was supposed to result in being paid back many times over by God, but typically resulted in lost fortunes, bankruptcy, and even death (when people ran out of money to pay for cancer treatments, etc). But that would make it harder for Tammy to be a sympathetic screen character.

This was quite a good movie, interesting, well acted, well scripted, and well shot. I didn't see the documentary; if it is good, some might ask the question why this movie needs to exist.

The Father - This tour-de-force from Anthony Hopkins is a crushing look at a man with Alzheimer's. It's impossible to describe without giving away the film, but the simple explanation is this: Anthony plays a man who has Alzheimer's. He does not accept this, but he is not always sure of his memory. Olivia Colman plays his long-suffering daughter. Other characters appear or disappear, and that's all you need to know. Both of them, as well as the director, play the scenes with sensitivity and creativity. It is engrossing, puzzling, and marvelous.

This is not a feel good movie. While it is sometimes depressing, it is so well done that it doesn't really matter (think, oh, let's say Kramer vs Kramer level of pathos). But it's not as miserable as some movies, like ones about slavery, poverty, or horrific abuse, so you don't want to kill yourself after watching it. Still, that makes it a movie that is not for casual movie night with friends. Worth watching.

King Richard - This is an okay, feel good movie, that is something of a crime in its conception.

This is the story of the father of Venus and Serena Williams; about his plan, from before their birth, to raise tennis pros who would rise up out of the ghetto (Compton), compete at international level, and make a lot of money.

Will Smith produced the movie and also plays Richard, the father. While he does a credible job with the role, he remains a slight-change-in-dialect version of Will Smith, so he's fine but not great. Aunjanue Ellis plays his wife, and mother of the two stars (as well as mother of three previous, also successful girls), and Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton play Venus and Serena. Everyone acts well; the directing is somewhat heavy-handed at times, but not often and not too much.

This is an okay sports movie about a man (with daughters) and his struggles to overcome his surroundings and his own demons. He overcomes a few of them, but some of his actions and decisions were pretty bad and the movie never takes him to task for them. I understand that Venus and Serena were consultants on the movie, so it is based somewhat on reality, at least (I hear that Richard was actually a lot more of a hard-ass than he appears in the film). As a film, it works fine.

But this movie is still a crime. Here was the opportunity to tell the story of two fierce, beautiful, successful, amazing young Black girls/women, and instead we get a movie about a man, where the two girls/women are props in his story. Why? Seriously, why do we need this story? It's not a bad story, but it's also not that original or dramatic. The Venus and Serena stories are barely told. This would be so much better if it were their story, with their father as a prop. So it is a little depressing.

Pixie - This Irish movie is a throwaway mafia/road film. It's a comedy about various criminals on the run, occasionally double crossing each other. It has some violence, but not enough to make me turn it off while watching it on the airplane. The characters, though insane, were at least sweet enough for me to watch through to the incredibly ridiculous and, yet, entirely predictable end.

Forgettable, and not worth watching, but not terrible. Beautifully shot in Ireland, and capable acting.

Spencer - This movie is directed by Pablo Larraín, the same person who directed Jackie, a movie that I disliked. I thought Jackie was directed (or possibly written) very poorly: mostly closeups of Natalie Portman's face and endless screen-time with her looking forlorn and pitiful. That's really not entertaining. People laud the acting of someone in closeup who is forlorn for 2 hours, but it doesn't make for a good movie. So I was not looking forward to see what this director would do for Lady Diana. I hoped to be pleasantly surprised.

I was not pleasantly surprised. In fact, it was exactly as poorly directed/scripted as Jackie: lots of closeups of a miserable, forlorn face. People close to Diana said that Kristen Stewart inhabited the role well, with all of the correct mannerisms and intonations. I thought the acting was affected, distracting, and overdone. Too bad, since I like to give Kristen the benefit of the doubt, but am often disappointed.

The movie is about a weekend that Diana spends at a castle with the royal family. She struggles with her eating disorder and her difficult husband, tries to visit her old family home, and runs afoul of royal expectations. She leaves early, takes the children, and separates (one presumes) from Charles back in London.

The rest of the casting, costuming, and cinematography is fine. The story is not: it's just moaning, warbling, and fretting, with the occasional pointed conversation in between. I was fine with the conversations, but that was only about 1/3 of the movie. Just watch The Crown.

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