FlixChatter Review: DUNE (2021)

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Few films are as buzzy as DUNE in the past decade and after nearly a year delay, its eventual release date felt like it crept up on me all of sudden. The press screening was packed, which wasn’t always the case lately as most screenings have been barely half full. But DUNE felt like a cinematic event, and the visuals on screen certainly attest to that. No wonder, Denis Villeneuve wasn’t pleased that DUNE will be released on HBO Max the same day as its theatrical opening, even from the first five minutes, this is a film to be seen in as big a screen as possible.

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Right from its opening screen, I was immediately in awe of the visuals… the world building that Villeneuve has done with his longtime collaborator Patrice Vermette. Set in the year 10191, the universe of DUNE is undeniably vast, so I’m glad I had read up about it leading up to the film. It certainly helps me digest the plot a bit better, which begins on planet Caladan, where the leader of the House Atreides, Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) is preparing for a new role as the governor of Arrakis.

It’s a lucrative gig given the desert planet is the only place the vital natural resource of spice, aka melange, can be found in the galaxy. Of course, that new power comes with a dangerous enemy, especially from the House Harkonnen, the previous family in charge of mining the spice. Like any greedy colonial government, the Harkonnen is good at stripping any place of its natural resources and use it for their own gain. Naturally they’re not happy to have to leave Arrakis and would do anything to regain control of it.

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At the center of the story is Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), the Duke’s son and heir of the royal house. Obviously he’s special given what he’s to inherit, but he’s also got special powers thanks to his mother, Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who belongs to a mythical intergalactic guild comprised of women with special powers called Bene Gesserit. The scene between Paul is tested by the guild’s leader Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling) is a memorable one and filled with mystery and suspense. The film shows just how revered and powerful this group is, as Mohiam is seen talking to and wielding her influence in both royal houses.

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The set design, architecture, costumes, and the futuristic elements are marvelous to look at. The Atreides’ home base in Arrakis capital Arrakeen looks like a world war bunker with its angular shape, which I read is what the style was modeled after. The construction looks like it could withstand the extreme climate and high winds of the desert planet. I especially LOVE the four-winged, dragonfly-like chopper (ornithopter) used by the Atreides, which apparently built for real by a company in England specifically for the film. This meticulous details of futuristic elements are the kind of stuff we go see a sci-fi movie for! I’ve always appreciate films shot on location and the fact that DUNE was filmed in UAE and Jordan definitely lends authenticity to the story, you could almost believe this desert planet actually exists.

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Given the complexity of the story, this film could’ve easily get bogged down by exposition. Thankfully, the script by Jon Spaihts, Eric Roth and Villeneuve did a good job in not over-explaining things. I like how Dr. Liet-Kynes, the planetary ecologist explain how the Fremen stillsuits work to help survive Arrakis’ harsh environment while commenting on how Paul seems to already been familiar with a world he never steps foot in. It’s obvious that Paul, like his mother, has supernatural abilities who’s destined for adventure and greatness.

One of my favorite scene is when Paul is in his room studying about Arrakis via holographic imagery and senses a foreign object has trespassed his space. It’s such a cool, thrilling scene that’s beautifully-filmed. Given this is just first part of the story, the script feels more enigmatic that sparks my curiosity. I like all the mystery of it all… the secrecy surrounding Bene Gesserit, the Fremen’s native people and desert power, etc. There’s a lot to take in, but the film makes it enjoyable to digest them.

Hans Zimmer‘s music helps immerse me in the desert universe with its Middle-Eastern motifs and African beats. Just like Villeneuve, Zimmer has been a huge fan of the book in his teenage years. He seems to relish working on this project and the result is an evocative, soulful and rousing score. As much as I love it though, the music can get overwhelming in some scenes as it overpowers the action. I think in certain parts, the music could have been toned down a bit.

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I have to commend Villeneuve in the one thing that many filmmakers struggle with, and that is pacing. It’s especially crucial in films over 2 hours long, but for me, its 2.5-hour running time didn’t feel like a drag. I do have my quibbles–for one, the films does feel overly indulgent at times, likely because of the director’s passion for the subject matter. The film’s energy also dips a bit in the second act, but overall it’s well-paced and the talented actors help keep me engaged throughout.

Oh and what an ensemble cast it was! Chalamet is perfect as the film’s protagonist, he’s got a strong screen presence with his handsome, youthful face and lithe figure. There’s an inner tumult and angst, which is typical in a teenage boy, but there seems to be something deeper that plagues him… as he constantly dreams of a Fremen girl that’s both seductive and ominous. Zendaya’s Chani is an important figure in the story. Though she doesn’t really get to do much until the third act, her presence is felt throughout through Paul’s dreams.

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In the House Atredeis side, I love how commanding and regal Oscar Isaac looks as the Duke with his glorious grayish hair and matching beard. Apparently he lobbied for a role in DUNE and he’s spot on as the patriarch who’s protective but also loving to his heir. But then again, he rarely made a wrong move since I first laid eyes on him in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood as Prince John. I’ve loved Rebecca Ferguson since The White Queen series and she’s got the beauty, strength and certain mystical aura as Lady Jessica. She has the most screen time with Chalamet here and I like the unconventional mother-son dynamic. In many ways, his mother is also his mentor as she was still training Paul to use the ‘voice,’ an audio-neuro mechanism used to manipulate others. 

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As the Duke’s most trusted military advisers, both Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa have the brute force as well as intellect required for the roles. The fighting scenes are pretty cool to watch, especially since the characters use an invisible shield, some kind of protective energy field that make them temporarily impervious from harm. Charlotte Rampling is not in the film much but you definitely won’t forget her in one pivotal scene. In the House Harkonnen side, we’ve got the villainous Baron Harkonnen, who looks like an oily version of Jabba the Hutt. Stellan Skarsgård portrayed the role in full body prosthetic jumpsuit. He doesn’t have to act much as his body makeup alone does the work. Baron is more repulsive than scary, while Dave Bautista barely has much to do here as his henchman.

Javier Bardem plays the leader of a Fremen tribe who has the audacity to visit the House Atredeis without an invitation. He’s a knight-like figure who’s strong and defiant, but like Zendaya, we only get to see him prominently in the third act. Taiwanese actor Chen Chang has some memorable moments as House Atredeis’ family physician Dr. Yueh despite his limited screen time. Last but definitely not least, there’s Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Dr. Liet-Kynes who’s easily one of my favorite characters in the entire film. Apparently the film changed the gender of the character from male to female in the book, which I think works just as well. Duncan-Brewster has a charismatic presence here so I’m glad to see her featured prominently throughout.

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I think fans of the book would likely have more things to pick apart than those who have not, such as myself. Herbert’s book has an anti-imperial, anti-colonial themes woven in its larger arcs. Even without reading the book, I could see the unsubtle commentary on Middle Eastern oil (swapped for the spice in this story) and also its environmental message that resonates today in regards to climate change and lack of care for our planet. As for the ‘white savior trope’ criticism towards the book, Villeneuve himself has addressed that as saying that ‘…it’s not a celebration of a savior, but more of a criticism of the idea of a savior, of someone that will come and tell another population how to be, what to believe.’ As someone from a SE Asian country that was colonized for over three centuries by a small country who literally mined our spices, obviously I’m not fond of this commonly-used narrative.

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To be fair, I think Villeneuve has tread carefully in this regard and present Paul’s story as someone who struggles with the idea that he’s seen as a savior. He’s shown as being passionate to learn about Arrakis and its people. There’s a scene where he’s talking to a Fremen watering the native palm trees. You can imagine how precious water is to a desert planet, and Paul questions whether the water should be saved for the people instead.

There’s also a scene where he and his mother mimic the Desert Walk of the Fremen where one alters its rhythm while walking on sand. It’s not just for efficiency but for survival given the giant sand worm is a constant threat. The fictional extraterrestrial desert creature is meticulously designed and it’s quite thrilling and suspenseful every time it glides through under the sand and practically swallow everything in its path, even a giant mining machine, if you can’t outrun it.

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Overall I’m impressed with what Villeneuve has done in bringing his vision of DUNE to life. It’s more than just a feast for the eyes, but the narrative delivery offers something thrilling and thought-provoking. The version we’re seeing is in fact Villeneuve’s vision from when he was a teen when he first read Frank Herbert’s influential sci-fi novel. I’ve mentioned in this post that I haven’t seen the David Lynch version, or should I say the Dino De Laurentiis version as Lynch disowned it. Not that it matters as Villeneuve has said repeatedly that his version wouldn’t have any semblance to the 1984 film. ‘Fear is the mind-killer,’ that’s the book’s mantra, but it might as well be Villeneuve’s as well given he dared to tackle something deemed ‘unfilmable.’ Tackling this weighty project obviously takes some massive ambition, passion and craftsmanship. It takes an even higher level of courage given that the Montreal-born director took this on after the major box office bomb of Blade Runner 2049 which also happens to be a remake of a 1980s version. 

Now, I’m not saying this movie is without flaws. I was hoping there’d be more emotional resonance given the high stakes. I didn’t connect with some of the key characters as much I had hoped, either because they’re under-developed or inaccessible. I figure it’s par for the course that the film feels incomplete, as this is just the first part of the whole story (even the poster spells it out… IT BEGINS). One thing for sure, there’s enough to get me invested in the world of DUNE, and the ending certainly makes me hope we get to see the conclusion in part II.

4/5 stars


Have you seen DUNE? I’d love to hear what you think!

FlixChatter Review – SWEET GIRL(2021)

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Jason Momoa is trying to establish himself as the next big action star in Hollywood but apart from his role as Aquaman in the DCEU, he hasn’t found much success. After appearing in several TV series early in his career, he landed a big title role in the remake of Conan the Barbarian, but that film was a colossal failure and tainted his rise to action stardom. He’s back on the screen again with an action movie that will end up on my list of one the worst films of the year.

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Ray Cooper (Momoa) and his wife Amanda (Adria Arjona) are living a simple life and raising their young daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced). One day, Amanda became sick and a doctor notified Ray that she has cancer. Hoping to save her with an experimental drug, the doctor assured Ray that Amanda will be one of the first cancer patients to be able to take the medicine. But suddenly the CEO of the drug company BioPrime, Simon (Justin Bartha), decided to pull the drug off the market. Once Amanda passed, Ray aimed his rage at Simon and his giant pharmaceutical company. Months later, a journalist who’s investigating BioPrime contacted Ray and wants to partner up and take down the evil company. Once Ray met up with the journalist, he was attacked by a hitman named Amos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Badly injured, Ray and Rachel must leave town and try to stay alive and keep ahead from the assassins that’s been sent to eliminate them both.

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The screenplay is credited to Gregg Hurwitz and Phillip Eisner. They sort of hit you over the head too much with the theme of an average person trying to survive in our current healthcare system here in the States. Since this is supposed to be an action thriller, the film is basically a long chase. That would’ve been okay with me since I was along for the ride but about a third into the film, the writers decided to include one the most ridiculous plot twist I’ve ever seen. I not going to reveal what that twist is but any credibility the film has up until then, it went right out the window after that scene was revealed.

I’ve seen my shares of ridiculousness in action films, and I can tolerate many of them. I accepted the fact that Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt can hang from airplane/helicopter and escape from explosions without breaking any bones in his body. Or Jason Bourne was involved in so many car clashes and yet he’s still able to walk away from those dangerous scenarios without a scratch. But those films were set in an alternate reality of action pictures, this film tried to make us believe it’s set in the real world and it’s so serious about it, too.

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Director Brian Andrew Mendoza didn’t really do much to elevate the script for the screen. He and his cinematographer shot a lackluster looking film. Mendoza also seems to be stuck living the 2000s since he shot the action scenes with the terrible shaky cam and up-close style that was popular in that decade.

Momoa really poured in heart and soul into this silly movie, and I guess it’s the only reason that I didn’t give this film a zero rating. He tried to be an everyman type of action hero, but it’s hard to believe that someone who stands 6’4 and builds like an actual superhero can be an average person. But at least he tried. This is the first time I’ve seen Merced on the screen, and she played the annoying teenager to perfection. Garcia-Rulfo is pretty good as the relentless hitman that’s pursuing our heroes. I was hoping for good mano-a-mano fight between him and Ray for the climax, but that scenario never happened because of the stupid twist.

I know Netflix has churned out many bad action films throughout the years, heck I’ve seen quite a bit of them. But this one might be the worse one yet. I would highly recommend you avoid this film at all costs.

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So have you seen Netflix’s SWEET GIRL? Well, what did you think?

Rental Pick: Sylvester Stallone in Walter Hill’s ‘Bullet to the Head’

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Sly Stallone is reliving his glory days as an action hero here in the 21st century, as many of you know, Stallone was the king of box office back in the 80s. Many of his films, mostly Rocky and Rambo series earned hundreds of millions at the box office. After strings of box office failures in the 90s and early 2000s, he was able to climb back and churned a few box office hits in the last couple of years. In this movie he decided to team up with director, Walter Hill, whose career as an action director pretty much ended years ago. Unfortunately the film barely made a dent at the box office when it opened last winter, so Hill’s career is still stuck in limbo.

The film starts with an aging hit man James Bonomo (Stallone) and his young partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) assassinates a witness in a high profile case. After the job was done, both men were waiting for their contact at a bar somewhere in New Orleans to received their fees. Unfortunately their employers sent out another hit man, Keegan (Jason Momoa), to take them out. Bonomo survived the hit but his partner was not so fortunate. Feeling betrayed and upset that his partner was killed, Bonomo wowed to find his employers and get revenge.

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Later a Washington D.C. detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), showed up at local police station and wants to take charge in the investigation of who put out a hit on the witness. He did some digging and was able to meet up with Bonomo. As it turned out the witness whom Bonomo took out was an ex-cop and Kwon’s former partner, he’s about to testify against some highly important people and Kwon wants to bring those people down. He asked Bonomo to help him but Bonomo was not interested. A few minutes later, Kwon was being chased by some hit men and was shot in the shoulder. Bonomo was able to come to his rescue and they both found out that the hit men were local cops. At this point Kwon realized he’s alone and no one will help him with the investigation and Bonomo still wants revenge so both of them decided to team up and find out who’s really behind this whole charade.

The rest of the film becomes the usual interracial buddy cop action/thriller that were quite popular in the 80s and 90s. We get the usual insults between the lead characters and of course shootouts and big fight scenes. The film sort of reminded me of 48 Hrs. which was also directed by Walter Hill. Having been out of the directing action pictures for a long time, I didn’t expect much from him. To my surprise, he actually did a pretty decent job with this film. The pacing of the movie is pretty smooth and he staged some really excellent fight scenes and shootouts. My only complaint is the film looked pretty dreadful, I don’t know what Hill and his cinematographer were trying to accomplish here. For a film that cost $55mil to produce, it looked like a straight to video action movies of the early 90s. Also, I have a hard time believing the film cost that much to make since it didn’t have any big car chases or huge shootouts that would require lots of visual effects. I don’t think Stallone is getting his usual fee of $20mil per picture anymore, so I don’t know where all those millions went, obviously it didn’t show it on the screen. Another big complaint, CGI blood, I hate it! I wish action directors would go back and use squibs again.

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As far as performance goes, I thought Stallone was pretty great in it. He plays the role perfectly, he’s not a good guy, just someone who’s doing this kind of work because he doesn’t know how to do any other kind. And for a man who’s in his late 60s, he still look great doing the action stuff. Sung Kang is not a strong actor and I’m glad they didn’t try to make him the lead, I’m pretty sure most people will only know him from the Fast & Furious franchise. The beautiful Sarah Shahi shows up as Bonomo’s daughter and she doesn’t really have much to do other than serves as the eye candy and of course, the damsel in distress. Jason Momoa is pretty much the usual one dimensional villain and even Christian Slater has a small role as one of the villains.

Despite it being a box office disappointment, I thought the film was quite entertaining that reminds me of buddy cop action flicks of the 80s. If you’re a fan of Stallone or Hill, you might enjoy it as well. Just keep your expectations low and don’t expect anything new from it, the film knows it’s an action picture and it didn’t try to be more than that.

3 out of 5 reels


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What do you think of this one folks? Do you think Sly still got it?