Dune (2021)

It’s worth mentioning right away that I have always been a fan of David Lynch’s admittedly flawed adaptation of Dune from 1984. I saw that movie on cable television sometime in the mid-1980s, and though I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on, I found myself captivated by everything happening on screen. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, so I clearly hadn’t read the novel yet. It was, in fact, the impact of that barely remembered movie that influenced me to read the novel later in life. Since then, I have read and re-read the original six novels as well as almost all of the supplemental books written by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, and Kevin J. Anderson. Dune is something I can’t seem to get enough of, and it all started with a young boy seeing the confusing experience unfold on an old box television.
I’m also somewhat fond of the 2000 miniseries John Harrison directed for the Sci-Fi Channel, though substantially less so than the version provided by Lynch. I’ve seen multiple versions of the 1984 release of Dune, owning it on VHS and later on DVD and Blu-ray, with collector’s editions that included multiple cuts of the film. There are a lot of things to love about the 1984 adaptation of Dune, from the dark tones to the dialogue ripped directly from the novel, and the overall aesthetic from set design to costumes and makeup. There are also a lot of things to dislike about it, most notably the significant deviations from the source material and the condensed narrative that ignores some of the most important components and sidelines numerous characters to the background. For most of my life, I expected Lynch’s vision, as corrupted as it was by studio interference, to be the best possible version of Dune I’d ever see on the screen. I was wrong.
As soon as I heard Denis Villeneuve was going to direct a two-part adaptation of Dune, I knew something I’d wanted to witness most of my life was finally coming to be. After seeing Arrival, Villeneuve’s adaptation of the Ted Chiang short, “Story of Your Life,” and the spectacular sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Blade Runner, I knew there was no other director who could bring Dune to life with any chance of successfully capturing everything important. His previous movies like Sicario and Prisoners were good, and they showcased an impressive directorial talent, but it was Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 that blew me away and made him one of my favorite directors.
Having seen his vision for Dune, or at least the first part of the narrative terminating as Paul and Jessica meet up with the Fremen, I felt like a childhood dream had finally come true. Everything about this movie was more than I could have hoped for. Though it lacked the directly adapted dialogue Lynch brought over from the novel, it more truly captured every beat of the story in a way Lynch’s vision didn’t even attempt to approach.
Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Paul Atreides is nuanced and captures the fear Paul experiences in response to the changes he feels in himself as well as the visions of a future he’s horrified to witness. More age-appropriate to the role than Kyle MacLachlan was, he captures the youth and aborted innocence of the young Atreides.
Similarly, Rebecca Ferguson captures the role of Lady Jessica Atreides spectacularly well, portraying a woman torn between two worlds and two vastly different sets of loyalties.
The rest of the cast is no less fantastic in their designated roles. Each individual proved themselves to be capable of thoroughly projecting their characters with such quality that I never once felt like I’d have preferred the original cast. I look forward to experiencing more of the performances from Zendaya (Chani), Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck), Stellan Skarsgard (Baron Harkonnen), Dave Bautista (Rabban Harkonnen), and Javier Bardem (Stilgar) when the second half of the epic story hits the screen in 2023.
The cinematography was jaw-dropping at times, and the sets and landscapes were captured with vivid detail that made the experience of watching the movie an immersive one.
The score provided by Hans Zimmer was the most surprising aspect of the movie, incorporating hints of the score TOTO provided for the 1984 adaptation of Dune. At no point going into this had I anticipated that there would be such a respectful nod to what had been a stellar score, one that I still consider one of the best I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.
I will spend the next two years eagerly anticipating the release of the second half of Dune, and I will also spend that time daydreaming that Villeneuve gets the green light to direct an adaptation of Dune Messiah.

Squid Game (2021)

I’d been seeing a whole lot of hype about the Korean mini-series Squid Game on Netflix for a while before I took the time to watch it for myself. I hadn’t been dedicating much if any, time to watching movies or television shows for what turned out to be quite an extended interval. I have to say that Squid Game was a damn fine way to return to watching a series.
While the overall narrative isn’t entirely original, its various components are assembled in such a way as to create a rather unique and exciting experience. Hugely reminiscent of Battle Royale, Squid Game incorporates elements familiar to fans of The Running Man, Tzameti, Series 7: The Contenders, and the old BBC series The Prisoner. While mingling all of these diverse elements–as well as other sources of inspiration–it transforms itself into a captivating and largely unpredictable story that retained this particular viewer’s attention throughout.
Primarily following Lee Jung-jae’s Seong Gi-hun, we’re introduced to a man living a life of regret and poor decisions but who is, at heart, a genuinely decent guy. It would be easy to suggest he’s a degenerate gambler and a deadbeat father, but there’s a whole lot more to him than that, and it’s quite clear that there’s a stubborn streak of optimism and desire to do right that motivates him along the way.
When presented with a mysterious opportunity to potentially change the course of his life and keep his daughter nearby, Seong Gi-hun accepts a fateful invitation that will certainly change his life forever, assuming he manages to survive.
Along with 455 other people, including his childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (played by Park Hae-soo) and a pickpocket he only briefly encountered, Kang Sae-byeok (played by Jung Hoyeon), the numbered contestants wake up in a large auditorium, wearing jumpsuits. The collection of mostly strangers are greeted by armed and masked workers who carry out the commands of the even more mysterious Frontman.
Led to the first game of the challenge, the sinister reality of their situation becomes terrifyingly real and the remaining contestants must determine whether the potential reward outweighs the all-too-real risks associated with the games they’re expected to play.
It’s all but impossible to write anything more than this without giving away spoilers. I don’t know if I should even worry about that, knowing how popular the series happens to be, but I’m sure there are plenty of people still sitting on the fence and uncertain whether they should watch the series, and I can’t help but say that they’d be making a mistake by not settling in for the series.
When the sixth episode concludes, only the most inhuman of us would be left unmoved and devastated. Consider that a fair warning, that you’re going to hurt while you’re watching the events unfold, helpless to do or say anything to change what we’re witnessing.
The only thing I found disappointing in the whole nine-episode series was the final moments of that concluding episode, and that wasn’t enough of a disappointment to sour how I feel about the show as a whole.
As a commentary on the predatory and toxic aspects of capitalist systems, Squid Game succeeds where plenty of other movies and series have failed to elevate the conversation. The mysterious Frontman says it best when he suggests that the goal is to give the 456 contenders an equal chance, where the outside world made equality a virtual impossibility.

We Need To Do Something (2021)

If you’re unfamiliar with We Need To Do Something, I recommend that you sift through my earlier blog posts for my review of the novella by Max Booth III. Published in spring of 2020, Max’s We Need To Do Something set an unexpectedly appropriate tone for a year that frequently included the term “shelter in place.” Deeply disturbing and claustrophobic, the novella got under the skin of almost everyone who read it. It was no surprise that the screenplay Max adapted from his novella managed to capture attention. Now we have the opportunity to watch the result of more than a year of hard work from Max and the cast and crew involved in the production.
We Need To Do Something is a tale of a dysfunctional, broken family taking shelter in a bathroom as a tornado warning precedes a massive and destructive cataclysmic event taking place in the world outside of their confinement. Trapped by a fallen tree, the family bonds dissolve as panic sets in. Revealed in flashbacks, we learn that the daughter, Melissa, might have something to do with what begins to feel more like the end of the world than merely a storm.
To say that Sean King O’Grady captured the foreboding atmosphere and quirky humor of the story is an understatement. I sincerely believe he’ll have a lot of attention after this particular movie makes the waves it surely will. I don’t doubt Max had plenty of input on set as an Executive Producer, and the screenwriter of the project, but it required a quality director with vision and attention to detail no matter how much consultation the writer provided.
Largely a single-location shoot, the set was an important character in and of itself. The bathroom where the family found themselves trapped as a storm–and whatever else–raged beyond the walls needed to be perfect in its way. The art department nailed the bathroom design.
Pat Healy’s performance as the angry, alcoholic father, Robert, is eerily well done. Vinessa Shaw captures the humor and sympathetic nature of Diane, the mother who, desperate to hold everything together, had been planning to leave her awful husband until the storm forced them into captivity. The true stars are Sierra McCormick and John James Cronin, Melissa and Bobby, respectively. The two of them portrayed siblings so well as to make one feel as if they’d been living together for years. Melissa was brought to life as a confused, terrified teenager wracked with guilt over the witchcraft she’d performed with her girlfriend, Amy, and the belief that they’d been responsible for everything happening. Bobby was believable as the equally adorable and annoying younger brother, so much so that the events are no less heartbreaking and painful than they were when reading the novella.
While the production wasn’t at all what I’d pictured in my imagination, it triumphantly came to replace the things I’d seen in my mind’s eye while reading the book more than a year ago.
I can only imagine how proud Max Booth III must be, having seen his vision brought to life in this new way, with such spectacular quality. It’s especially gratifying, I suspect, to have seen the “good boy” scene played out on screen. Anyone who has read the novella will know precisely what I’m talking about. It’s truly the turning point of the story, where the reader/viewer realizes there’s something horrifying taking place.
We all need to do something, indeed. We Need To See This Movie!

Ex Machina (2014)

This review was originally written in July of 2015

Ex Machina starts off slow but remains compelling from the beginning through to the end, and it managed to prove itself to be easily the most well-written and well thought out story to touch on this subject matter.
Chappie was entertaining and sort of sweet, Age of Ultron was exciting, but Ex Machina was the best and most honest exploration of artificial or emergent intelligence I have witnessed on screen.
Everything from the introduction of Ava, through the process of getting to know her as she is put through a protean sort of Turing test by a gifted coder, to the intense and chilling (but somehow still understated) climax of the film is insanely captivating.
The interactions between the relatively naive Caleb (the programmer) and the erratic and controlling Nathan (his boss and the man who developed Ava) fluctuate between bizarre and somewhat friendly but with an ever present sort of tension that builds as the narrative continues.
The true star of the movie is Ava herself, portrayed by Alicia Vikander…and she most certainly shines in her role, showing that it might not be the best idea to strive for human emotional development and sexuality when working towards AI.
Elements of the movie definitely take a cue from Bladerunner…questions of identity, what it is to be human, and how far we might go in simulating humanity when creating a new form of life…in addition to exploring all too common human issues like insecurity, desire, and mistrust.
I want to say more. I want to discuss specific points in the narrative, but I don’t want to include any spoilers. I hope that you’ll see it for yourself. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the best science fiction movies I will see in a good long while, and I believe you will feel the same if you take the time to watch it.

Lost River (2014)

This review was originally written in July of 2015

On the surface Lost River is a devastating portrait of urban decay after the housing collapse, delving into the virtually empty remnants of what were once thriving Detroit neighborhoods…but it ends up being so much more than that.
Ryan Gosling proves himself to be perhaps more talented as a writer and director than as an actor, which is an impressive feat considering just how good he really is as an actor.
As grim and heartbreaking as the story is, there is a sense of stubborn hope and refusal to give up threaded throughout the narrative. In the desolate and unsettling environment and conditions in which the movie takes place we find Gosling displaying intense imagination and creativity as he weaves a story that is as much dark fantasy as it is drama.
Matt Smith (yes, that Matt Smith, The Doctor) portraying a deeply unstable and psychotic antagonist taking control of the neighborhood is fantastic opposite Iain De Caestecker (probably best known for his role in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) in his role as a son desperate to help his family survive by stealing copper from the abandoned buildings around where they live.
Christina Hendricks (Saffron from Firefly) is amazing as the mother driven to extremes trying to keep her home and her family together.
Honestly, I can’t think of anything I disliked about this movie and I am damn glad that I took the time to watch it. Gosling’s writing and directing are about perfect, the acting is superb, the filming locations manage to get under the viewers’ skin and create an atmosphere that truly works with the beautiful score to enhance every aspect of the story that’s being told, and the cinematography is so well done that it really draws you in.

Fear Street Part Three: 1666

The final installment of the Fear Street trilogy from Netflix had some weaknesses, but it was an overall satisfying conclusion to the story. In a sense, it was like two movies in one.
As Deena restores the skeleton of the witch, Sarah Fier, she finds herself transported back in time to the colonial community of Union, where she experiences the final days of Sarah Fier’s life through her own eyes. We discover that the history everyone had taken for granted throughout the previous two installments is not the reality of what happened during those fateful days in 1666.
Sarah and Hannah Miller–much like Deena and Sam in 1994–are lovers in a time when it was most certainly less socially acceptable than it is today. Jealous men of the village spurned in their advances, use this forbidden love as justification for cries of witchcraft and devilry. It just so happens that there is witchcraft afoot, but Sarah and Hannah are, of course, innocent.
There was a satisfying moment in the story when Sarah determines that she will bring the devil down on the citizens of Union in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Already condemned for practicing witchcraft, she feels there’s nothing to lose. Instead, she discovers the truth of who is behind the apparent curse afflicting the village before she is captured and hanged by the overzealous Union residents. It’s this discovery that brings us back to the present of 1994–and the latter half of the movie.
Deena, Josh, and Ziggy–along with the custodian, Martin–craft a desperate plan to bring down the real witch and end the curse that’s afflicted Shadyside for more than 300 years…hopefully, saving Sam in the process.

Willy’s Wonderland (2021)

Willy’s Wonderland comes closer to being an adaptation of Five Nights At Freddy’s than The Banana Splits Movie managed a couple of years ago. I loved them both, but I have to say Willy’s Wonderland succeeds in surpassing The Banana Splits Movie in almost every way one could imagine. This could easily be one of the best horror/comedy flicks I’ll ever see.
Nicolas Cage, as the unnamed janitor, does more with over-the-top expressions and action than many actors could pull off with a full script of dialogue. There’s a sort of hilarity to the total and complete lack of dialogue from the actor and the focus on a face that conveys exaggerated grimaces and sneers with such ease. We learn nothing about the janitor’s life before unfortunate circumstances led to his being locked in the dilapidated Willy’s Wonderland building overnight. Dog tags dangle from the rearview mirror of his car, hinting at possible military service in the past, but that is the extent of our protagonist’s backstory.
That’s ok, though.
We learn enough to know that if we ever need a janitor who can excel with a virtually impossible job on their plate and constant distractions, this guy is our man. If this were a video resume, I’d hire the dude for his work ethic alone…though he does appear to be a bit inflexible concerning when he takes his breaks.
We learn plenty of backstory regarding the town of Hayesville and the history of Willy’s Wonderland itself. A Chuck E. Cheese-like establishment owned and operated by a serial killer who hired other serial killers to work as the staff. There’s something about a Satanic suicide ritual that allows the murderers to inhabit the animatronic bodies of the various cartoonish hosts of the place, and an uneasy bargain struck with the town’s inhabitants to keep the evil contained to the building itself.
It’s absurd, gory, and ridiculously violent…and it is, in my opinion, a must-see for anyone who enjoys the Five Nights At Freddy’s games or any sort of ludicrously violent movies where teenagers and other people are slaughtered and oil replaces blood splatter as animatronic monstrosities are dismembered by the best janitor the world will ever see.

The Empty Man (2020)

I’ll start this off by saying that I’ve never read the Boom! Studios graphic novels by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey that this movie was adapted from. Having seen this movie, I might need to change that…but I went into the movie blind. I’d seen a couple of trailers, but those serve as minimal preparation for what this actually is.

It took me a short while to build up the motivation to sit down and watch this one, in large part due to the more than two-hour runtime. It isn’t always easy to find that much free time to dedicate solely to watching a movie. I wish I’d found the time to do so much sooner. The trailers I’d seen led me to expect something potentially unoriginal. I suspected I’d be in for an amalgam of the movies The Bye Bye Man and Wes Craven’s (in my opinion, underrated) My Soul To Take. This was not at all the case.

What we have with The Empty Man is a highly original horror film that succeeds in providing an exploration of the nature of reality, memory, and cults within a deeply unsettling, atmospheric narrative. This is one of those stories that will stick with you long after the final credits begin rolling. It’s challenging to discuss anything about this movie without giving away elements that are best left a surprise for those coming into the experience fresh, as I did.

The movie begins with a group of four hikers ascending the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan in 1995. With a storm approaching, they seek shelter but discover something terrible instead. After this lengthy introduction to the supernatural/extradimensional nightmare seeking to bridge its way to our world, we experience a time jump to the modern-day, where a traumatized former cop finds himself investigating the apparent disappearance of a teenage girl. The mystery revolving around that disappearance leads him down a path of confusion, occult intrigue, and death. The exploration of a sinister cult intrinsically connected to the events at the beginning of the story calls into question the very nature of the reality we perceive and the reliability of memory.

To say that this was a heavy piece of fiction is to offer up a bit of an understatement. There’s so much densely packed into this movie that it’s probably worth watching two or three times.

Freaky (2020)

Freaky succeeds in being the perfect response to the Wheel of Fortune before-and-after puzzle, “Freaky Friday the 13th.” My personal favorite before-and-after remains my brother’s “Zyklon Bea Arthur,” but that would make for a far less interesting movie when you think about it. That’s neither here nor there.
If you enjoyed Happy Death Day, The Hunt, and other Blumhouse productions with a horror/comedy bent…there’s nothing disappointing about this one. A mousy, grieving high-school girl swaps bodies with a notorious local serial killer after he fails to kill her with an ancient sacrificial dagger. I mean, what could be wrong about that?
In a strange sense, it’s a coming-of-age tale about mourning and family…only with self-aware stereotypes and meta commentary on the usual slasher tropes. There are some interesting and gruesome kills throughout the movie, beginning with a play on my favorite kill from a slasher movie prior to this one, which was the wine bottle scene from Sorority Row (the 2009 remake of 1982’s House On Sorority Row).
Vince Vaugh was spectacular as both the killer and as the high-school girl trapped in an adult man’s body. Seriously, it’s the best performance I’ve seen from him. Kathryn Newton was pretty impressive as well, transitioning from being a virtually invisible teenage girl to being a bloodthirsty murderer in a young woman’s body.
As much as I enjoyed this one, I will say that it doesn’t tread any new ground and there’s nothing particularly surprising about it (beyond the quality of the performances and the graphic nature of some of the kills). It’s a fun movie for the sake of being a fun movie.