Weekly Update: Dune, The French Dispatch, Steamworld Dig 2

What I’m Watching: Dune

When I was young, maybe 12 or so, my five siblings and I were watching Return of the Jedi one night at home alone. My parents were off on one of those solo dinners that were for some reason necessary from time to time. My eldest brother was old enough to fill in for a babysitter, so it was just us kids clustered around the TV.

At this time, all my family’s movies were recorded from television on VHS tapes, a product of my parents’ dissolute 20’s when they still watched TV serials like Buck Rogers. This meant that often, several films in sequence could be found on one tape. The films were written on the side for convenience. I can’t immediately recall what was the film recorded before Return of the Jedi on the tape–for some reason our parents would never let us watch the beginning of that movie.

For once, we didn’t stop the movie at the credits, but just talked as the credits rolled too lazy to stop and rewind the tape just yet. And then there was a sudden blip of static, the sign of the tape moving from one recorded section to another, and suddenly, on screen was a fat man bristling with warts, laughing maniacly as he floated around the room.

I’m 90% certain it was this scene

It was more than a fever dream, it was the closest to a horror movie my siblings and I had ever seen, and we watched in horrified fascination through scenes of riding worms, puking worms, creepy bald little girls with blue eyes, and a knife fight with a spiky-haired psychopath.

I can’t quite recall if I had nightmares, though I certainly recall I was still awake when my parents got home and I gave them a breathless report of the movie. “Oh…” said my mother. “I forgot we had that.”

Anyway, the new Dune is quite good. I’m happy to have something that actually hits the space-drama tone of the original instead of the twisted fever-dream vision that’s forever been associated with the series in my mind. I find the movie’s aesthetic of weight to be really interesting–everything is huge and chunky, even the ships, even the furniture. Perhaps its meant to contrast with the Fremen culture, but the movie doesn’t really show enough to make that clear. The only light, fragile things seem to be the insect-like fliers. One thing–I did get a much stronger sense of the franchise as space-fantasy. I can’t believe it took me so long to realize that the essential point of the shields is to rationalize why people use swords in a sci-fi setting. (Though really it’s because everybody loves swords)

This is 100% a knight in armor and all the space traveling stuff is just a goofy way of rationalizing fantasy hijinks, and that’s okay.

Stellan Skarsgaard, as a friend of mine put it, does a good job of balancing Baron Harkonnen’s grossness and his intelligence. Lynch’s Baron is practically an oozing pustule. Skaarsgard is disgustingly fat, but he has a more quiet menace, someone who comes across as a genuine strategist, less of a madman and more of just a merciless, corrupt glutton. Oscar Isaac is an amazing Duke Leto who you can’t help but love and Timothy Chalamet works quite well as a moody, uncertain psychic troubled by forces he doesn’t understand. He’s trying to assert himself, but no one around him really takes his wishes seriously, even as everyone tells him he’s basically a god on earth.

It feels like overkill to have Josh Brolin AND Jason Momoa AND Dave Bautista in the same film, and it’s borderline criminal that there isn’t a three-way match-up at some point. (Though Momoa and Bautista apparently have a fight in the AppleTV series See) Bautista doesn’t get a chance to do much, but Brolin and Momoa both do very well as a committed bodyguard and a gregarious older-brother character, respectively. Brolin, in fact, does a better Gurney Halleck than Patrick Stewart does, though I’m not sure that that is really very high praise–Stewart always seemed too skinny and too formal to come across as a fighter.

Stephen McKinley Henderson is a surprise as Thufir Hawat, who barely featured in the earlier Dune yet was so crucial in the book. He balances the intelligence and the heart of the character, being just odd enough to make you aware there’s something fundamentally different about him from the others. I’m looking forward to seeing him return, along with Brolin and Bautista, in the sequel. (I’m also looking forward to seeing the Emperor, though I have no idea who could possibly replace Sting as Feyd-Ruatha).

And my theater was packed, so maybe there’s hope for cinema after all.

What I’m Also Watching: The French Dispatch

Word of advice–this is not a good date movie. There’s extended scenes of Lea Seydoux posing nude, and an (intentionally) bad poem spoken by Timothy Chalamet musing about whether his girlfriend will remember the sex they had.

(I saw this movie as a first date with a new girl from the internet. I saw Dune with the girl I broke up with a few weeks ago. Is that weird, to see a movie alone with your sort-of ex?)

The first fifteen minutes was so Wes Anderson it felt like a parody of Wes Anderson. Maybe the rest was, too, it just became no longer noticeable once you were in the swing of things. It’s an anthology film, with essentially nothing connecting the various stories, apart from their inclusion in The French Dispatch, a publication apparently meant as a stand-in for The New Yorker. Anderson’s usual tricks are in force here, as well as many of his favorite actors: Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Willem Defoe, Adrien Brody, and of course Owen Wilson all make an appearance here, along with many other famous actors. (It was very interesting seeing Timothy Chalamet as a pretentious scrawny student so quickly after seeing him as a budding psychic god in Dune.)

The framing from The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the movie’s story is rested within another story within another story, is used repeatedly here, with each story being told as a news article, which itself is sometimes being recounted by the author at an interview or speech, and which is itself added to with excerpts from musicals, comics, or dioramas based on the events. Each article is wrapped up by a scene of Bill Murray reading the story and critiquing different aspects of the prose or the storytelling.

Another device used is the juxtaposition of black-and-white and color, with frames often within the same story changing from black-and-white to color. Often this was past vs. present, apart from certain moments within the past which were particularly beautiful or timeless.

This is actual still from the movie, and if you know Wes Anderson that should not surprise you.

Owen Wilson’s opener was an oddly straightforward travelogue, which helped to set the sense of place, as well as establish that all the sequences were, at least ostensibly, articles. “The Concrete Masterpiece” contained the unfortunate nude posing scenes (they fit well in context, it was just awkward for a date), and it was a funny though not gripping piece (though I did enjoy the commentary on the art world.) “Revision of a Manifesto” was the story of Timothy Chalamet leading a student’s protest, as told by Frances McDamorand, and frankly the one I liked least, with its fixation on idealistic pompous students.

“Prison Cooking” was absolutely my favorite, and a strong one to finish off the anthology. Jeffrey Wright plays an African-American homosexual food critic. It seemed oddly virtue-signaling for Wes (though it fit with the character’s sense of isolation and melancholy) until the end, when I realized the character was meant as a stand-in for African-American homosexual journalist James Baldwin. So it was more homage than messaging.

It’s easy to shove Baldwin in a box as an “issues” writer, but his essay “The Discovery of What it Means to be an American” from his time in Paris is an excellent reflection on the differences between American and European mindsets.

Ostensibly, the sequence starts out as a discussion of the artistry of the chef of the police commissioner, but quickly turns into the crime drama of a boy’s kidnapping. It’s funny and exciting, but grounded by the emotional reflections of the food critic, who is reciting the article word-for-word (almost) at an interview many years from the events. Crucially, at the end of the piece, we learn that the writer has omitted from his retelling the only words that the chef actually told him–a beautiful reflection on cooking and being an outsider. The author hadn’t originally included it in the article, saying it “made him sad,” before the editor said it was the most beautiful part of the piece, the entire point, and demanded he include it in the article. Presumably, because he’d never wanted it in the article, the food critic didn’t recite it in his word-for-word recitation in the later interview. It’s a fascinating indication of how stories change in the telling.

There’s two recurring themes in the piece. One is the editor’s insistence on “no crying” in his office, despite so many of the stories containing deeply sorrowful aspects. The other is the editor’s advice to his writers–“Just try to make it seem like you wrote it that way on purpose.”

It’s possible to get too caught up with making grand sweeping assumptions about an artist based on a single work, but “Make it seem like you did it that way on purpose” struck me as a fitting description of Anderson’s very deliberate style. Things like the perfect symetry that Anderson is famous for, along with the excessive levels of detail, the title cards, and the unrealisticly colorful environments, are out of fashion specifically because they make the artistry too obvious. They don’t seem natural or lifelike, they break immersion. But Anderson breaks with this. Anderson aims for intentional artistry–half the point is the unnaturalness, the clear artifice involved. It’s not real life–and that’s the beauty of it, in a way. Mssr Gustav from The Grand Budapest Hotel explicitly has a veneer of politeness that hides a cruder, less polished nature. Isle of Dogs and The Amazing Mr. Fox are both obviously artistic with their stilted puppetry–one of the funniest moments in Isle of Dogs comes when Atari Kobayashi inspires an entire crowd of people using a line already employed unsuccessfully earlier, but now converted into a haiku. Intentional artistry.)

Wes Anderson’s approach wouldn’t hold up across the board. Stories need to be immersive and have a sense of reality. I think, in fact, his stories wouldn’t work quite as well if they weren’t many of them about intricate craftsmanship of some sort or another, whether heists, hotel management, or sea life documentaries. But his love of craftsmanship itself makes his style lovable and engaging.

(Incidentally, while I wouldn’t recommend The French Dispatch as a date movie, the girl I went with said she enjoyed it, so I guess it worked out.)

What I’m Playing: Steamworld Dig 2

One of the reason I started writing the Solomon Code series was due to the lack of male protagonists. It’s probably not, actually, as large as it seemed to me when I was trying to find an agent for my Machinist story (also featuring a male protagonist), and certainly in the past literary heroes have been overwhelmingly male, but more recently, there’s been a strong trend to offsett this historical prevalence with a surge of female heroines. As I wrote at the time, there’s nothing exactly wrong with this, apart from a lack of modern male role models (also it leaves me out in the cold, as a male writer).

Why is this relevant? I was worried that Steamworld Dig: 2, had turned the (male) protagonist of its first game into a villain.

There’d be no reason, of course, to suppose that this was exclusively for motives of social consciousness, or even that there was any particular thinking to using a female side-character from the first game as the protagonist of the second, particularly since the ending of the first game clearly set up her future role. Female player characters are certainly the minority in video games; they could use more representation, though they’re growing in popularity. And “hero-to-villain” stories in series aren’t that unusual, though I do hate them.

It was just an irritating thought. I’d liked Rusty, and while Dot was fun, it felt like it’d take a major change to turn Rusty into a villain.

(Spoilers Incoming)

They didn’t do that. In reflection, it’s a bit finicky of me–it could probably have been done perfectly well, and the game would have been perfectly fine–nearly unchanged, in fact, with hours of good gameplay. But it was wonderfully satisfying to come to the end and find that, after all, the hero from the last game had not become a villain.

Well. Steamworld Dig 2 is fun, with more varied environments and expanded characters than Steamworld Dig 1. The Vectron level is haunting and probably one of the most fascinating parts of the game. You can’t expand the settlement like you could in the first game, which is a shame, but there are more characters with a wider range of personalities. There are more enemies, too, with even a few boss battles in the mix, and endless chances for upgrades and customization.

And the game hints at yet another sequel, which I hope happens, because the game was good fun.

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