The protraction of the pandemic has made movie audiences' return to theaters spotty at best.
Nevertheless, studios keep trying to lure viewers back to live venues with ever greater spectacles. Recently they succeeded in that goal with two thrilling blockbusters:
Cary Joji Fukunaga's No Time to Die, which marks Daniel Craig's farewell to the role of James Bond, and Denis Villeneuve's Dune, the second completed screen version
of Frank Herbert's classic science fiction novel.
The twenty-fifth Bond picture to date and the fifth starring Craig,
No Time to Die begins with a violent preamble involving the
child Madeleine Swann and the terrorist Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek). The story then moves forward to the adult Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) having a glorious vacation in southern
Italy with Bond, whom she is planning to marry. But while making a pilgrimage to visit the grave of Vesper Lynd (his love interest in Casino Royale), Bond is ambushed
by assassins. Because only Madeleine, to Bond's knowledge, knew of Bond's presence in Italy, Bond makes the obvious assumption and leaves her.
Five years later Bond, retired from MI6, is living as a recluse in Jamaica when he receives an unexpected visit from his old friend Felix
Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and CIA agent Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen). Obruchev (David Dencik), a scientist working on top-secret programs for MI6, has been kidnapped, and Felix
and Ash want Bond's help in finding him.
Before and after this point, No Time to Die contains enough fights, shootings, car chases and explosions to satisfy even the most jaded
action fan. All of the characters who survived the previous four Craig-Bond outings are back, including M (Ralph Fiennes), Q (Ben Whishaw), Miss Moneypenny (Naomie Harris),
and Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). There are also several new characters, including Nomi (Lashana Lynch), the newly designated 007, who finds the former 007 as annoying as he
finds her. The most enjoyable new character is Paloma, played by Craig's Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas, who shares an escapade in Havana with him.
The Bond movies featuring Craig are distinguished by a greater seriousness than the previous incarnations, with a more fallible Bond
and a greater sense of mortality. (A scene set in the offices of MI6 features a large portrait of Judi Dench, who played Fiennes' predecessor as M and who met her end in Skyfall,) Craig's
performances as Bond have been marked by a world-weariness unknown to the Bonds played by Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan, and Roger Moore. In No Time to Die Craig's Bond has become a bitter
recluse, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and it takes an unexpected visitor to give him the impetus to reclaim his life—or end it nobly.
I had trouble with the character of Safin, who struck me as unnecessarily murky as written. Otherwise, No Time to Die—though
not quite as fine as Skyfall—gives the fans everything it should, and provides a satisfying end to the Craig era. The end credits assure us
that Bond will be back. In what guise, and with what emphasis as to character and storyline, have yet to be intimated.
I have never been a Bond completist, but I've seen enough of the Bond films to claim familiarity with the series. Conversely, I come to Dune as
a neophyte. I have never read any of the twenty-one Dune novels (the first six by Frank Herbert, the remainder by his son Brian and other
writers) or seen the 1984 movie directed by David Lynch. (Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1970s attempt to film Dune is the subject of a 2013
documentary.) So far the critical consensus is that Denis Villeneuve—whose new film covers only the first half of Herbert's first
novel, with a sequel in the works covering the second half—has exceeded Lynch in capturing both the sweep and the minutiae of Herbert's mythology. Xan Brooks in The Guardian summed up the
general reaction: "Dune is dense, moody, and quite often sublime—the missing link bridging the multiplex and the arthouse." However, there
are those who strongly prefer Lynch's version, notably Richard Brody of The New Yorker. Brody faulted Villeneuve for "a failure of
imagination, an inability to go beyond the ironclad dictates of a script and share with viewers the wonders and terrors of impossible worlds,"
and gave Lynch credit for achieving those wonders and terrors.
Brody's review makes me want to see Lynch's version, despite all the warnings against it that I have heard. Meanwhile, as a newcomer to
the world of Dune, I found myself strongly in agreement with Xan Brooks: Villeneuve's film is generally satisfying, and its second half
awe-inspiring. Brody has a point in suggesting that the first half of the new film—which presents how the noble House Atreides is ordered to
the desert planet of Arrakis, putting it in deadly conflict with the brutal House Harkonnen—is top-heavy with exposition. But in Villeneuve's
defense he lays the groundwork well, especially in establishing the characters and their relationship with each other, so that when the
mayhem begins we know exactly what is at stake, and feel the full force of the peril the characters face.
It is no surprise that the director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 does justice visually to the world of Dune. With the help of
cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designer Patrice Vermette, Villeneuve creates a world of infinite beauty and menace,
simultaneously golden and monochromatic, sumptuous and oppressive. The scenes toward the end, in which Paul Atreides (Timothee
Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) are stranded in the vast Arrakian desert. terrorized equally by
Harkonnen's troops and gigantic sandworms, achieve a terrible magnificence akin to the quicksand scene in Lawrence of Arabia.
Duneis not the sort of film that attracts award nominations for its
acting. Nevertheless, its cast is distinguished and all its members fulfill their duties to the letter, just like the soldiers of House Atreides.
Ferguson has the strongest role, but everyone shines, including Oscar Isaac, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa,
Stellan Skarsgard, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, and Zendaya.
Most of the commentary on the film's acting has concentrated on Chalamet and whether he was the right actor to play Paul Atreides
. Again, I am no judge of what Frank Herbert intended, but Chalamet won me over. He is thoroughly persuasive as a youth facing trials he
never imagined on his way to manhood, and the camera—as always—loves him. Various commentators have compared this stage
of Chalamet's career with Leonardo DiCaprio's status of twenty-five years ago. If Chalamet achieves DiCaprio's level of stardom, I will be perfectly fine with that.