In the long tradition of epic filmmaking, predestination or an oracle-like destiny for heroic lead protagonists has been a common motif. DUNE doesn’t toy any differently from that formula. Its science fiction antecedents, in this book to screen transfer, is also something we have become immune to, over decades of experiencing larger than life spectacles, most of them merging camp aesthetics with multiplicities of fantasy within its umbrella masthead.
DUNE is mostly redeemed, inspite of those established points of deja vu, by its understated journey, a ponderous pace and screenplay that lets its characteristically male lead( an always beautiful Timothee Chalamet) to not indulge in much action skirmishes and instead use his mental acumen to traverse terrains and hold on to mortality with his mother( Rebecca Ferguson) in tow. Other senior members of his inner circle do his bidding in terms of their corporeal presence against intergalactic opponents. That includes formidable likes of Jason Momoa, Oscar Isaac and Josh Brolin. Also can we applaud the casting team for bringing Tim and Rebecca together as a familial unit here? Their features are so uncanny.
Of course, the vast and often unforgiving landscapes are captured efficiently, with its technical finesse in top form. Maybe, for me, a lack of overwhelming inclination towards the fantasy genre limited my involvement in this case. But the muffled tones and customary epic duration of two and a half hours are all in service of a predictable payback.
The ethical dilemmas, ethnic and cultural homogeneity in terms of the costumes and looks on top of the political allegory vis a vis control of spices and capitalist critique are all right with me as is a very good performance from Sharon Duncan Brewster as a leader and saviour who is tasked with looking after the mother-son duo’s passage to the desert. Ultimately, this one is not really my cup of tea. The storytelling is a bit stifled here, focusing instead on the visual aspect overall.
Trust me when I say that these tentpole blockbusters do not serve anything resembling novelty now. DUNE is a part of that pantheon despite its best intentions.
KING RICHARD (2021)
Let’s just cancel out all the post-Oscar narratives around this feature. The ego of stars and their absurd tactics, employed towards internal feuds on a world stage, shouldn’t come in the way of this extraordinary story of resilience and resolve.
Directed with the same defiant energy that Mr. Richard Williams, father to Serena and Venus Williams, espoused all his life, this biographical retelling shows us that he didn’t care to court popularity or even diurnal favour with those in the sporting fraternity. All he really had his mind set to was ensuring his daughters transcended gender, race and the stereotypes of being from Compton to become tennis legends. Realising that dream with a roadmap paved with grit and courage for them marks some of the greatest portions of this screenplay. In the process, designing him as a real human being, not a fountainhead of empty virtue.
Will Smith is absolutely tenacious in his embodiment of a man who had endured abuse, racism and the denial of his sporting talents. But he didn’t let the bitterness percolate down to his daughters, offsetting his indomitable spirit with a quest for instilling in them the virtues of discipline, hard work and importance of education. Humility too as when he leaves his daughters in a store upon listening to them running down their defeated opponents casually after a successful tennis match. I admire him because he never defends his not so palatable attitudes and deems it a right to be vulnerable with his family members instead of just being a stoic, detached father figure.
As a sports film too, KING RICHARD draws from the joy of two legends being shaped by their parents’ coaching. Credit of utmost importance here is to be given to the equal contribution from Orocene Williams, the mother and practical head of this family, who intervenes and lets wisdom occupy every room she’s in when attitudes get a bit too much to bear. Aunjanue Ellis is dynamite, whether she’s calmly asking her troublemaking neighbour to get off her case or running down her husband for assuming himself to be a veritable ‘know it all’. Her training acumen is covered to fit in with this narrative where lost histories of the Williams family is retrieved.
It ends on a note of defeat on the field for the future legends but the recognition of greater glory for their abilities in years to come. That triumphant, unbending tone permeates a portrait of this family like few others.
Repression has many forms. Neglect, socially sanctioned and cruelly demarcated gender roles to condition that distance are just some of the many layers that are extant within a relationship. These further get another dimension when the natural world of same gender bonding alleviates losing grip on one’s desires and fills the gaping void.
Ismat Chugtai’s LIHAAF/ THE QUILT gave them all precedence over the silence of conservatism way back in the 1940s. This understated cinematic work juxtaposes Ms. Chugtai’s obscenity trial emanating from the book’s publication along with the flashback to her younger days with an aristocratic relative who was suppressed under veils of tradition, genteel society, a queer better half and physical wants beyond her reach. That the couple here indulges in more than stirrings of same-sex relationships, each individually, unveils further a commentary on how individual lives and niceties are misshapen by social diktats.
The issue of the begum’s quilt making shadows that make young Ismat cower in fear is just one of ‘the elephants in the room’ in this case.
Watch it for its provocative subject matter delivered with subtlety as also Tannishtha Chatterjee’s caustic presence as the high-spirited adult Chugtai.
Cynthia Erivo’s powerful performance as legendary abolitionist Harriet Tubman breaks with many conventions. Kasi Lemmons’ direction draws from her mythical stature and gives her a spiritual edge that gradually ends up becoming coherent and consistent with her mission at hand. Her communion with God has an almost Christ-like purity, an intuitive sway over coming events that aids in rewriting her personal quest to overcome the tyranny of white supremacy. When she miraculously crosses the river, intimating us that some kind of divine intervention ensured the depth of the water came down, and leads other folks escaping the ravages of slavery, this writer gasped at the manner it is staged, a commonplace occurence laced with the extraordinary.
But HARRIET isn’t a victim of mythmaking reserved for this titular icon. Her agency and agility is at par with her verbal certitude. Erivo’s expertise is in how she never becomes too big for her boots, leading from the front in her almost solitary quests to the South after escaping to a free North and appealing for others’ belief in what she deems as God’s guidance in her dangerous journeys. That single-minded zeal is always channelized for the greater good, never for self-aggrandizement. She is upright, earnest and goes against her frequently cited petite stature to show us what a big spirit truly means.
Incorporating Erivo’s melifluous voice as her calls meant to signal other folks of her proximity during her rescue missions, HARRIET gets the folkloric frisson of her legend right, not concerned merely with being on the side of fact or fiction alone. Which is why this screenplay becomes one of immersion in her worldviews.
THE ACTRESS (2021)
An ode to the performativity of almost all of our lives in the public eye, this short by maverick filmmaker Andrew Ondrejcak is impeccably made. To any cinephile, it’s a love letter to cinematic history right from its beginnings to the present epoch.
Lingua Franca filmmaker- actor- writer Isabel Sandoval is the muse who inhabits diverse eras in the form of embodying Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Fonda ala Barbarella as well as the metaphysical nature of Tree of Life’s maternal figure and the anti-social protagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The most alluring recreation remains that of Isabella Rosselini’s singer from Blue Velvet. The mystery of life is evident in the pithy dialogic presentations that go with the visual imagery. An attention to detail regarding each scenario and period appropriate ethos enhance its appeal.
THE ACTRESS ends with the literal sense of an actor’s preparation to essay a part converging with the ponderous nature of things seen, felt and experienced. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this five and a half minute capsule on MUBI.