DUNE (2021) Review

Audacious sci-fi scale, but a vapid adaptation. Dune is a stunning sci-fi/action visual spectacle that delivers rich imagery and epic fight choreography; but falls short in translating the thoughtful, complex themes and mythology of the source material, which get buried in heavy handed exposition or are entirely cut. Dune (part one) is the first part of the of an epic sci-fi tale about Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto of house Atreides and Lady Jessica, a sister of the Bene Gesserit who are sent by the Padisha Emperor from their home world Caladan to govern the Planet Arrakis after the Departure of House Harkonnen. If you haven’t read the book and this sentence sounds overly expositional and convoluted to you this is how you’re going to feel throughout 80% of the films dialogues. However, I’m sure you’re not going to see Dune for the dialogue and it has plenty to offer aside from that.

Director Denis Villeneuve wanted to make this a “Star Wars for adults” and with that he succeeded. Dune boasts impressive visuals and epic conflict but in a more mature manner than the Star Wars films. Instead of using colorful light sabers people are stabbing each other with actual knives. Still not much blood is seen, thanks to the film’s PG 13 rating, but that seems to be unavoidable in today’s industry. The Designs are kept very close to the book, especially the Ornithopters which actually have flapping wings unlike in previous adaptation by David Lynch. Some of it may be because of the improved technology after nearly 40 years but I believe the production designers were definitely trying to stay faithful to the source material. All in all the depictions of technology, lifeforms and other things will satisfy fans of the book, although the production design was a bit too monochromatic for my personal taste. The visual direction is similar to other works by Villeneuve: simple and effective. The camera itself is not here to show off. That’s what the Sandworms, spaceships and battles are for. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is dark and moody, which fits the more adult tone this film is going for.

Continuing with its mission to be an adult Star Wars, it’s also more complex editing wise with mystic visions by the protagonist Paul sprinkled throughout the film by Villeneuve’s frequent collaborator editor Joe Walker. The visual effects shots are done in similar manner to the rest of the camerawork. They are impressive but only there to move the story along and not at all show-offy. The hand to hand combat sequences, of which there are quite a few, most of which look very practical are impressive as well. One can clearly see the effort the actors put into making them appear so effortless. That also includes the main cast, no stunt doubles here! There is one early fight or rather training scene between Chalamet (Paul Atreides) and Brolin (Gurney Halleck) where their skills are put on full display.

Now the actors of which this film has many and many famous ones also did very well, even despite the fact that most of their job consists of spouting exposition and fighting. Rebecca Ferguson as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica being the clear standout and stealing every scene she’s in. Timothée Chalamet has his edgy teenager moment, which in this case fits the character who is still coming to terms with his new place in the complicated conflicts and power structures of Dune but doesn’t really have any other stand out moments. Zendaya, the other perhaps controversial star of this film, also doesn’t stand out much, neither in a negative nor positive way. Her character only really appears in the film towards the end so there’s not really enough to see for a final verdict.

Now on to the not so good aspects of the film. Although the conflict in Dune is still very complex and probably closer to Game of Thrones than Star Wars it’s still very simplified if not dumbed down compared to the complex political intrigues and power plays of the novel to fit the limited runtime of the film format. The complex world of the Dune universe also has to be explained to viewer somehow, which here is mostly done through expositional dialogue. The exposition is well integrated to the story as Paul, the protagonist is also learning about most of these things but it can become a bit overbearing as said before. This can leave viewers who are not familiar with the source material overwhelmed and confused about the particularities of the story and story world. Nevertheless the film should still be enjoyable as an epic sci fi tale about family, power and mysticism, even if it takes some time to understand surrounding lore. Hopefully this film will also motivate a new generation of Dune fans to dive into the world that Frank Herbert created in his books.

Written by German correspondent Leon Zitz.
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“The Addams Family” Animated Movie Review

Not creepy, mysterious, or spooky, but it’s certainly kooky and fun. Duh duh duh dum, snap snap. Just in time for Halloween is The Addams Family! I went into this movie not expecting much. A friend of mine loves all things Addams Family (even his drag persona is Katrina Von Addams), so he wanted to see it together. And to be perfectly honest, I enjoyed the movie. Is it predictable? Yes. Is the screenwriting weak? Yes. But is it a fun way to just kick back with a movie that entertains sufficiently enough? Yes. The voice cast is great and the character designs feel inspired by the earliest drawing in The New Yorker magazine. For me, the characters feel like the Addams Family that we have known for over 75 years. And just like the family themselves, the plot defies all logic. But that doesn’t take away from the good time I had watching it. It provided me with precisely what I needed, about an hour and a half of turning off my brain to have fun with endearing characters that have had a home on the small and big screen alike over the years. During the opening credit sequence, I saw that Bette Midler was in it! I literally yelled Bette Midler in the auditorium because that elated me. No surprise, she plays the role of grandma–a witch. The Divine Miss M returned to her witchy roots. In addition to Midler, you will enjoy the voice talents of Oscar Isaac, Charlize Thereon, Allison Janney, Chloe Grace Moretz, and other familiar names. The theme of the story is acceptance and individuality, which bodes well for this movie. Although we never dive deep into this topic, the B and C stories parallel one another in theme, but approach the topic from different perspectives that touch on immediate family, extended family, and friends/neighbors. Even though the characters are not as dark as I was hoping they’d be, you do get some trademark Addams Family macabre humor at the mansion. While the movie does not open up with the iconic theme song, the end of the movie includes a tribute to the original TV series opening that will leave you with a smile. If you’re searching for a great animated movie, then this is not it; but if you are looking for a fun way to spend 1.5hrs with your kids or friends, then this movie works very well.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“Annihilation” film review

Outstanding craftsmanship that provides a trippy, surrealist experience! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a horror science-fiction film like this one–one that harkens back to the manner in which Stanley Kubrick terrified audiences with his cinematic masterpieces. The brilliance of this film is the visually disturbing storytelling that’s built upon metaphysical and philosophical queries as well as Freud’s uncanny. Written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina) and based upon the Southern Reach book series by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation boasts an all-female lead cast that takes the audience on a gripping, nail-biting adventure into the unknown that is frocked with wonder and tragedy. Falling in line with extraterrestrial films, this one exists somewhere between Alien and Arrival with influences from Kubrick and even Salvador Dali. Don’t wait for it to be released on Netflix internationally to avoid watching it at your local cinema; this IS a film best viewed, experienced, and enjoyed on the BIG screen–and not the 65in in your living room. For those who look for and appreciate science-fiction and/or horror films that explore psycho-social and institutional themes, then this is truly a film for you. Cognitively engaging and physiologically disturbing, Annihilation is a turbulent, horrific adventure.

After a mysterious meteor-like object strikes a lighthouse in Area X (most likely the swamplands of northwestern Florida), an increasingly growing membrane-like phenomenon is slowly swallowing up the land around it. When several paramilitary and scientific expeditions do not return from exploring the anomaly, biology professor Lena Kane (Natalie Portman) is aggressively recruited to work on the next team of scientists to track, report, analyze and potentially rescue former teams from what’s being called “the shimmer.” Professor Kane and her team have no idea that they will be facing their worst nightmares inside the shimmer as they explore this unknown world filled with dangerous opposition from the creatures that live within and the psychosis-like tension between the team members themselves.

Definitely not a film for the general masses. And you know what??? That is perfectly fine. In fact, that’s why this film works so incredibly well as an avant-garde-like science-fiction horror film. Had it directed for the masses, the film would not be nearly as stimulating psychologically and physiologically. Much like Garland did with the Oscar-winning Ex Machina, he crafts a world based on the best-selling series that takes the audience on a disturbing journey into the macabre, which juxtaposes the physical and metaphysical dimensions. Garland’s Annihilation is a masterful cinematic work that combines excellent writing with exceptional imagery and stunning practical effects. If Dali were alive today, this is the kind of film that he would have wanted to work on because there is such a heavy surrealist approach to the production design and visual effects. But this film is so much more than just the cinematic beauty of the motion picture. There are philosophical questions that one may ask oneself that create an added dimension of engagement that further immerses the audience into the world of the film.

Much like with Ex Machina, Garland shows an obsession with the need to see and see through when observing an unknown entity that may or may not be sentient. Paralleling how he set up the glass wall between Caleb and Ava (the AI) in the compound/lab designed by Nathan (Oscar Isaac, who is also in Annihilation), Garland sets up the interrogation room in which we are first introduced to Lena while she is being interviewed by the team in hazmat suits. I love the play on perspectives, vantage points if you will in both movies. That fluctuation between a filtered and unfiltered view of the phenomenon under observation offers much depth to the storytelling. In Annihilation, we are initially introduced to the shimmer, and world within, through sensors, readouts, and other “filters” but then we are thrust into the horrifying flora, fauna, and animal life without any type of protective boundary. Freud refers to the revealing of that which should remain hidden or the return of the repressed (which we literally get to witness in this film) as that which is uncanny (click for article). Just as our characters are constantly searching for clarity, you will find yourself paying close attention to the unknown to gain an unhindered understanding of what you are witnessing.

Not your average science-fiction horror film, this one will truly get under your skin–much like The Shimmer invades the bodies of those who choose to enter the dark twisted, refracted world of that which lies beyond our senses. Truly terrifying, this film is one for those who love a sci-fi horror that will prompt you to contemplate the themes and subtext of the movie. One of the quandaries that face the characters, and by extension, the audience is the idea of self-destruction versus suicide–the physiological versus the psychological components. For those who may worry that the film is “too intellectual,” the story is told in such a way that it not only appeals to film critics, academics, or horror aficionados but can be enjoyed by those who like a good, disturbing scare. The fact that there is the “intellectual” dimension to the film adds to the experience for those who appreciate that element in visual storytelling.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” movie review

XMenApocalypseEpic! It isn’t often that one word can sum up the screening experience of a movie, especially when going into the film, one had lots of hesitations that stemmed from the questionable trailers. Prepare yourself for the heaviest of the X-Men movies future or past. Probably the best feeling to take away from this one is the storytelling quality of the cartoon paired with Bryan Singer’s unparalleled handling of what is arguably the most successful Marvel franchise over the decades (that may be changing with the unprecedented popularity of The Avengers). While some may describe this movie as a failed attempt at reliving the glory days of the X-Men, I venture to say that there is enough evidence to support this being a strong third movie. As much as I enjoyed the movie–and do not mistake me, I did–there was a LOT going on in this movie and it came close to failing to effectively and successfully tell A complete three-act story. Just like in Batman v Superman, where Warner Bros bit off more than they could chew, 20th Century Fox came close to making the same mistake. Thankfully, the story was just strong enough to drive excitement and thrill through the minds and bodies of the audience.

X-Men: Apocalypse is the third movie in the Bryan Singer reboot (fourth installment if you count the original X-Men movie from 2000). The world of Ancient Egypt was once the center of the universe; and in that great empire, there lived the original mutant [Apocalypse] (Oscar Isaac). He grew in strength and power to the point that he ruled the world. After several of his fellow Egyptians betrayed him in attempt to bury him alive, he was cast into a deep sleep hundreds of feel beneath the surface. Due to a dedicated group of followers thousands of years later, Apocalypse was awaken and he has set out to reclaim the planet as his own and raise his children. Determined to build his mutant army, he begins to recruit the most powerful X-Men including Storm (Alexandra Shipp). When Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) encounters Apocalypse while in Cerebro and is captured, the still-fractured X-Men must go to great and nearly impossible lengths to rescue him and save the world. Teaming up with new student Scott (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Quicksilver (American Horror Story’s Evan Peters), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Havoc (Lucas Till) will battle Apocalypse and his four horsemen including Storm, Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

What a cast! The quality of talent in and of itself is an outstanding accomplishment and is responsible for a great deal of the success of the film. Writers create characters and directors craft them, but it is the actor who ultimately brings the characters to life for the silver screen. Each and every actor is an excellent match to their respective characters. In addition to the actors we have been introduced to in past films, the newcomers quickly cement themselves in this and future movies. With so much material and less than three hours to deliver a movie that could be on par with the previous two and The Avengers films, it was vitally important to have an impressive cast that could win you over instantly. There simply wasn’t time for an actor to grow on you or to decide how you felt about a particular character. Each actor needed to his a homerun as soon as they stepped out of the dugout. I paid close attention to Sophie Turner because I was only familiar with her from Game of Thrones, and I just wasn’t sure how I would feel about her as one of the omega class X-Men (Jean Grey). Oh, I knew she looked the part, but could she pull it off??? And the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Much like Captain America: Civil WarX-Men: Apocalypse is nothing short of a superhero extravaganza. And although they are similar in many respects, there are two completely different tones in the respective movies. Are they both serious? Yes, but the former also includes comedic relief sequences and dialog (and yes, if you read my review, I found those to be poorly handled but I am not going to revisit that tarmac scene or the annoying Spider-Man in this article) while the latter retains the serious tone throughout the movie. However, it is successful in not becoming a parody of itself as was the case with Batman v Superman. I will state this: Civil War does boast a dynamic plot that flows smoothly the whole time, whereas Apocalypse flows smoothly most of the time, but at others, it does feel a mite bumpy. We could discuss symptoms of the problems all day, but the root of the problem is simply trying to tell too much story in one movie. To be honest, I have a felling that I am going to decide that I like X-Men more but that is likely because, in all fairness, I grew up with the cartoon. What works for X-Men, much like Captain America, is the fact that the audience does not need to be familiar with the comics in order to enjoy the movie. Singer makes sure that anyone who enjoys high concept comic book superhero action movies will enjoy this film. Well, that is, unless you happen to be a diehard comic book aficionado. This movie is simply exciting and visceral.

Memorial Day weekend will either be dominated by powerful mutants or charicatures from the other side of the mirror. Although X-Men will probably not perform as well as Civil War, I don’t think Alice has a chance of topping this quintessential summer blockbuster on the unofficial start to the summer. Unless you live here in Florida where summer started in March. Haha. Speaking of Florida, and in particular Orlando where MegaCon 2016 is being held, knowing that most of the theaters would be filled with cosplayers and enthusiastic fans, I had the challenge of finding a theatre in the area at which to watch the movie and not face cols out auditoriums and nose-bleed seats. I was successful in finding a small privately owned theatre in the vicinity and has the whole thing practically to myself. Running camera for a medical convention, so I am writing from the Rosen Shingle Creek instead of my condo in Tampa. It’s been quite nice to stay on site versus driving an hour here for the event each day. Happy Memorial Day!

“Ex Machina” Movie Review

Ex_MachinaA thought provoking science-fiction film. Universal Pictures and Film 4’s Ex Machina is a brilliant work of fantasy/science-fiction. From the time the movie begins to the time the credits roll, your mind will have a heightened sense of anticipation of what is about to happen next. This is one of those movies that will eventually find its way into film appreciation classes in order to dissect the many themes, both direct and indirect, implied and inferred, woven meticulously throughout the narrative. Over the years, there have been numerous other artificial intelligence (AI) movies, but this one is likely the best example and best produced movie in this sub-genre of science-fiction and fantasy. Maybe it’s because the dawn of AI is most likely upon us? Or, just because for once, a more serious and more realistic approach to tackling this fascinating subject is being showcased in theatres. From the writing, to the directing, to the cinematography, to the acting, Ex Machina is definitely a film to catch if you are a fan of science-fiction films that have real sociological themes and comment on the age-old quandary: man vs machine.

Ex Machina is about a young programmer/coder named Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) who works for the very “Google-like” company called BlueBook. Upon winning a contest to meet with the reclusive founder of BlueBook, Caleb is whisked away by helicopter to the beautiful mountain residence of founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Shortly after his arrival, Caleb learns that Isaac used the contest as a rouse in order to select a candidate for the Turing Test (an AI evaluation test, so to speak, to determine if an AI actually has human-like intelligence and reasoning). Caleb is astounded to come face-to-face with the world’s first true AI (Ava, played by Alicia Vikander) in the form of a beautiful woman who is precisely his type. After a few days of testing, it becomes clear to Caleb that there is something more than meets the eye; something darker underscores the bizarre testing in the remote mountain retreat.

Director Alex Garland, best known for 28 Days Later and Sunshine, demonstrates his writing-directing prowess in this beautiful, cutting edge movie. Although it is ordinarily fairly easy to become bored watching three principle and one supporting characters for nearly two hours, Garland uses his gift to orchestrate this film in such a way that each scene is fresh and clearly advances the plot. This film is one of the best examples of a well-developed plot that is constantly reinforced, checked, and advanced throughout the narrative. His handiwork is also seen in the character development, expressions on, and blocking of the actors. Like building a model, Garland provides solid plot structure upon which the more superficial elements are laid. Beyond the high concept plot, there are brilliant themes and provocative subtext that will aid in the overall performance of the film, and give film scholars, writers, and the scientific community something to toss around in spirited debates. Aside from the running theme of man vs machine, there are also themes of whether or not a machine is “born” hetero or homosexual, much in the same way that very debate is discussed in regards to humans. A quick note regarding the exquisite production design, it is simple yet absolutely perfect for the movie. I really enjoyed the straight lines and sharp angles, very Frank Lloyd Wright.

If you know anything about literature or screenwriting, you are most likely familiar with the term or plot device known as deus ex machina (latin for “god from the machine”). The textbook definition is something to the effect of a plot device whereby seemingly unsolvable dilemmas are suddenly and abruptly resolved by the unexpected intervention of a new character, event, or object; this often occurs when the writer has painted him/herself into a corner. Knowing this, analyzing the title is quite interesting. Essentially the title means “from the machine.” After watching the movie, I am unsure as to what is coming ‘from the machine,’ unless you count the emergence of human-like intelligence. Otherwise, it really isn’t explained–the significance of the title–beyond the fact the movie centers in and around the testing of an AI machine. It’s entirely possible that the title was selected simply because it sounds cool, fits easily on a marquee, and does point to the plot. Exploring the significance of titles and title sequences can often unlock hidden meanings in the film. On a side note, next time you watch Ridley Scott’s Alien, really pay attention to the opening title/credit sequence.

At the center of the movie is the Turing Test. Nathan tasks Caleb with the responsibility of objectively and subjectively analyzing and evaluating Ava to see whether or not she possesses human reasoning, problem solving, dialoging, and cognitive processing. His goal is to determine if Ava is essentially human. The following analysis does contain some information that may spoil the movie for some–fair warning–if you need to, please skip to the last paragraph. Following a sequence of events, Caleb devises a plan to escape with Ava after she professes feelings for him and he falls in love with her. Although at first in disbelief regarding her humanness, he believes she has the capacity to love and process cognitively equal to and perhaps superior to flesh-and-bone humans. Like any good antagonist, Nathan discovers the plan by way of a hidden camera; and instead of eliminating Caleb, explains that Ava is actually screwing with his mind–pretending to love him. He doesn’t believe Nathan, and continues with his plan that was already hatched, unbeknownst to Nathan. After a struggle, Ava is set free and winds up killing Nathan. Despite the professed feelings for Caleb, Ava leaves him locked away in a room with no means of escape. She boards the helicopter and heads off to the world of humans with no one to blow her cover or enslave her.

This is where the plot does leave room for question. Although the ambiguity of the reasoning behind Ava’s decisions involving murder and entrapment may have been intentional, the driving force behind the decisions to murder Nathan and leave Caleb trapped in the house, left to die should have been made clearer. But on the other hand, the ambiguity is perfect material for debating what may have been going through her “mind.” The reasoning for her murder of Nathan is fairly clear. He caused both mental and physical abuse, oppressed her, leaving her locked in a glass room like a lab rat. He stood in her way between slavery and freedom, and she needed him eliminated. Here’s where it gets tricky: why leave Caleb to die in the house when she professed her love? I think it’s because she was way more human than either Nathan or Caleb could have dreamt. She pretended to love Caleb. If pretending to have feelings for someone in order to use them to your benefit isn’t as human as it gets, I don’t know what is. Even though we never get a definitive answer in the diegesis of the movie, the audience is previed to that information.

Another interesting possible theme to discuss is Ava’s first encounter with another AI. There is a shot sequence between Ava and another female Asian AI immediately following her emergence from her glass cage. In the manner in which this encounter is shot, it could be read as lesbian undertones. No explicit romance is witnessed, but there are subtleties that Ava may be sexually attracted to the beautiful Asian female AI. Is it possible that something switched on inside her when she encountered another female for the first time? Perhaps innate repressed feelings were ignited, despite what Isaac said he programmed her to be? Maybe feelings that weren’t there for Caleb were made more intense by the other “female” in the house? This gets back to the argument if a human or machine is programmed from day one to be hetero or homosexual. These are questions best left up to those who want to speculate the inner-workings of Ava’s psychology and chemistry. But, nevertheless, are fun to talk about. Most likely, she was just plotting with the other AI, against Nathan and Caleb; but I feel there is a slight possibility of the former.

Ex Machina represents some of the best that the science-fiction/fantasy movies have to offer. It contains social commentary, science, and excellent subtext. While many science-fiction films suffer from adequate and well-crafted plot development, this one is a shining example of how beautifully produced a science-fiction/fantasy film can be. What makes this movie an excellent one to watch is the ability to intrigue the audience with both a scientific element and one that taps at your psyche and prompts you to think about the positive and negative consequences of developing a human-like AI. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, definitely plan to catch it in theatres.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa and works in creative services in live themed entertainment. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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