Stellan Skarsgard

Dune

21/10/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

After the long shutdown of the pandemic and the recent Bond-led ‘resurrection’ of cinema, what we need next is an epic – one of those big, sprawling sci-fi adventures replete with stunning alien landscapes and awe-inducing special effects. So Dune really couldn’t come at a better time, but director Denis Villeneuve must be all too aware of the potential pitfalls. A previous attempt to put Frank Herbert’s source novel onto film – in 1984 – almost stopped David Lynch’s burgeoning career dead in its tracks. And while Lynch attempted to pack the entire contents of the book into one film, Villeneuve adds the extra gamble of shooting just the first half of the story, trusting to providence that the resulting movie will be successful enough to bring him sufficient revenue to make the second part.

The jury is still out on that but initial worldwide box office figures look promising.

It’s the year 10,191 and Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) has recently been assigned – by the Emperor of the Universe, no less – to become the fief ruler of the desert planet of Arrakis (Or Dune, as it’s sometimes known). He and the rest of House Atreides will be taking over from its previous overlords, House Harkonnen, led by the corrupt Baron Vladimir (a hideously bloated Stellan Skarsgård). Arakis is the source of spice, a mysterious substance that pretty much runs the entire solar system, so of course the Harkonnens are far from pleased about being ousted from their exalted position.

Meanwhile, Leto’s son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), has been having recurring dreams about Arakis, or – more specifically – about a young woman who lives there, Chani (Zendaya). She is one of the indigenous Fremen, who have always endured a precarious existence under the yoke of their despotic rulers. Paul begins to think that he’s destined for something important and, when he learns his friend, Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa), is setting off on a preliminary reconnaissance of the planet, Paul begs to be allowed to accompany him. But he’s told he must wait until Leto and the others can go with him.

So it is not until he and the rest of House Atreides set foot on the sun-blasted sands of Arakis that they discover they are venturing into a carefully laid trap….

James Herbert’s novel has an almost messianic following and I imagine most of its readers will be pleased with what’s on offer here. Villeneuve’s direction, combined with the almost hallucinatory qualities of Greig Fraser’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s eerie score, makes for a memorable experience. The casting is impeccable, with Rebecca Ferguson excellent as Paul’s mother, Lady Jessica, and Josh Brolin a perfect choice as the dour warrior, Gurney Halleck. And then, of course, there are those infamous sandworms, one of the elements that really didn’t work in Lynch’s movie, but they certainly generate lots of tension here…

Villeneuve keeps everything bubbling along at a sedate pace, taking enough time to set out his stall. The world-building is beautifully done and the theme of colonialism convincingly explored. And if Paul Atreides is just another in a long list of Christ figures, a popular conceit in science fiction, well it hardly matters. Dune carries us along on a tidal wave of sensory overload until we dimly register that the first instalment is over and we’ll have to wait another year to see how things turn out for Paul.

Quibbles? Well, yes, and it’s one that’s becoming increasingly common. Dune has a 12A certificate, which means that some of the more violent elements of the tale have been downplayed. While I understand there’s a wish to maximise the potential audience for the film, this was never going to be another Star Wars (Dune comes from a much more po-faced universe than Obi Wan and his merry gang). So I think a 15 would be a much better fit. But I absolutely understand why it is what it is.

That said, I enjoy the film enormously and I’m sure I won’t be the only one eager for a second helping, which… all being well… will be coming to a universe near you in the not-too-distant future.

4. 6 stars

Philip Caveney

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

23/07/18

The reviews have been astonishing: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, we’re told, a glorious piece of feelgood fun; moreover, it has the emotional heft to make us cry. We’re surprised: we’re ABBA fans (because the music is undeniably good, right?) but we both found the first film a sort of okay-watchable-quite-good-nothing-special kind of thing. So what makes it so much better this time?

Sadly, the answer is… nothing. Nothing makes it better, because it isn’t better: it’s worse. It’s weirdly patchy: some genuinely awful sequences interspersed with lovely moments. All together, it’s a mess. Most of it (the prequel section) tells a back story we already know, fleshed out without revealing anything. There are no surprises here. The sequel section fares better, with the multi-talented Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) bringing a much-needed sincerity to proceedings, and wringing every ounce of emotion from the songs (One of Us, which she sings with her estranged husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is the highlight of the film for me).

The prequel takes us back to 1979, when Donna (Lily James), freshly graduated from Oxford, unsure of what she wants from life, decides to seek adventure and takes herself off travelling. In Paris, she meets Harry (Hugh Skinner); charmed by his geeky naïvety, she spends the night with him before heading off alone to Greece. En route to the unnamed island idyll that claims her, she meets Stellan Skarsgård’s younger incarnation (Josh Dylan), but he’s off to take part in a boat race, and – while he’s gone – she falls for Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the Pierce Brosnan-a-like, who is absolutely perfect – except for the fiancée he forgets to tell her about. James is a charismatic performer, and her vocal skills are more than up to the challenge (which is more than can be said for poor Hugh Skinner, who has definitely been cast because he resembles Colin Firth, and not because he has any discernible musical ability). Her character is flighty and foolish, making literally no use of that Oxford degree, but she’s engaging and entertaining, and she makes us care about her.

Not much happens in the sequel, which is a shame, because it has all the best songs and all the best actors. I mean, Sophie gets pregnant and feels close to her dead mother, and there’s a party that’s threatened by a storm, but that’s about it. True, Cher is a camp delight, appearing as Sophie’s errant grandmother and stealing the show, and Dancing Queen proves the perfect accompaniment to a lively, animated crowd scene. But honestly, that’s all there is.

There are huge missteps too. I hate the graduation scene where Donna and her friends (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) sing I Kissed the Teacher to a badly accented Celia Imrie (I think she’s supposed to be Scottish, but I can’t be sure). They’ve changed ‘he’ to ‘she’ in a bid to make the lyrics somehow more palatable, but I can’t see what difference it makes – it’s a good song, but the sentiment is undeniably creepy when filtered through a 2018 lens. It makes me most uncomfortable.

Ach, I don’t know. It’s just a load of mawkish nonsense, unpalatably sentimental and as silly as can be. Thank you for the music, ABBA – but can we stop filming this fluff?

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Borg vs McEnroe

 

25/09/17

Tennis has never fared particularly well on the big screen (Wimbledon, anybody? Thought not). But this film, which focuses on the tumultuous 1980 tussle between ‘iceman’ Bjorn Borg and ‘superbrat’ John McEnroe, at least manages to capture the enduring appeal of the sport – that weird synthesis of action and psychological torture that has so many of us in its thrall. Sverrir Gudnasson offers an uncanny performance as Borg, capturing the man’s look and moves with absolute precision, while Shia LeBeouf isn’t a million miles away with his impersonation of McEnroe. Though the newspapers of the time loved to play up the essential differences between the two players, what’s interesting here are the similarities between them.

We first meet Borg as an obsessive youngster, given to losing his temper at every turn and throwing tantrums every bit as bad as those that would be displayed by his opponent, years later. But it is the intervention of tennis coach (and former Wimbledon finalist) Lennart Bergolin (Stellan Skarsgard), that convinces Borg to become the man the world would fall for – a silent, brooding introvert who never displays his emotions. McEnroe’s childhood proves to be equally interesting. He was some kind of mathematics prodigy. Who knew?

Naturally, the main part of the film concentrates on that famous game, where Borg is going for his fifth title and McEnroe is the upstart the public loves to hate, threatening to overturn a champion who has all the charisma of a pop idol. It’s to director Janus Metz’s credit that he manages to generate some real levels of tension here, even if we already know the outcome of the match. (Mind you, I’ve misremembered it. I thought we were watching the fateful game of the following year, the one that prompted Borg to retire from the sport at the tender age of twenty six – so the end actually comes as a complete surprise to me.)

I’ve seen a lot of poor reviews for this but as a tennis lover (and as somebody who watched enthralled as the original match played out) I rather enjoy it. Then again, if tennis really isn’t your thing, this clearly isn’t for you.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Our Kind of Traitor

ourkindoftraitor-mcgregor-gunpoint

17/05/16

The recent success of the BBC’s The Night Manager has put the work of John Le Carré back into the public eye, but Our Kind of Traitor (terrible title) isn’t likely to enjoy the same levels of success, despite the presence of Ewan McGregor in the lead role.It’s not an awful film, by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s a plodding, workmanlike feel to Susanna White’s direction which prevents it from ever really taking flight. And then there’s the plot… oh dear.

McGregor plays Perry Makepeace, a university lecturer, who we first meet on holiday in Morrocco with his barrister partner, Gail Perkins (Naomi Harris). Mind you, they’re not having a lot of fun as they’ve gone there to try and get over Perry’s recent fling with one of his students. One night, on his own in the hotel bar, Perry encounters Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) and recklessly accepts an invitation to go clubbing with him and his pals. Dima, it turns out, is a high-ranking member of the Russian mafia, a money launderer, who is about to sign over millions of dollars of ill-gotten gains to a fellow gangster, ‘The Prince’, who is planning to open a bank in the UK. (Well, he’s a mafioso, he’s surely allowed some hobbies?) Dima is painfully aware that the last person who signed over money to this charmer ended up dead, along with all his family – so he enlists Perry to take a flash drive back to London for him and asks him to it over to MI6. Perry being the thoughtful sort, doesn’t even bother mentioning any of this to Gail. (No wonder their relationship is in trouble!) The first she knows about it is when they’re detained at passport control.

Perry promptly comes to the attention of Hector (Damien Lewis) a spy who (like most Le Carré characters) has his own personal agenda and wants to get even with other MI6 operatives who have done him down in the past. He’s keen to enlist Dima’s help to expose those MPs who have been dealing with the Russians on the quiet – but there’s a problem. His employers are reluctant to sanction such a move and will only allow him three agents.  Almost before you can say ‘that seems highly unlikely’, Hector has recruited Perry and Gail to help his team bring Dima and his family safely to the UK. Whereupon all kinds of adventures ensue in a variety of eye-catching locations…

Whether or not you can accept such a risible idea will greatly influence your ability to enjoy this film. I’m afraid I simply couldn’t. The ensuing chase does manage to kindle the occasional bit of tension, but the ultimate overview – that everyone is basically corrupt and nobody can be trusted, soon becomes a little wearing; furthermore, the notion that MI6 can’t afford to enlist enough operatives to handle such a mission successfully is faintly ridiculous. McGregor gives it a go but looks uncertain of himself all the way through, Harris doesn’t really have much to do except stand around looking worried and even the usually dependable Skarsgard has to shout and bluster his way through the proceedings, in order to generate some momentum.

Oh yes, and like most Le Carré stories, there’s a rather downbeat ending, that does nobody any favours. There will doubtless be plenty of people queuing up to tell me I’m wrong, but if this film has a flavour, to me it’s basic vanilla.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney