Screening Room: ‘Dune’

Denis Villeneuve’s gorgeous adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction epic Dune has been pushed back from theatrical release almost as frequently as the last Bond. Chances are, it will have a little more staying power, even if Timothée Chalamet’s take on Paul Atreides is not the most memorable acting you will see this year.

Dune opens this week. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

Herbert’s Paul is one of science fiction’s original Chosen One characters. Like later iterations from Luke to Neo who the character inspired, Paul is a quasi-Christ figure who combines unmatched warrior skill with a certain mystifying Zen insight that sets him apart from and ultimately above the humans who surround him…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Last Duel’

Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Erik Jager’s nonfiction book The Last Duel is, well, far more than another medieval jousting movie.

The Last Duel opens this Friday. My review is at Slant:

…a film that’s not only set during the Hundred Years’ War and turns on an abstruse question of jurisprudence, but also features multiple Rashomon-esque takes on an inciting event and a blond Ben Affleck chewing scenery with Klaus Kinski-like gusto, might sound doomed to failure. But against all odds, it turns out to be a smartly acted and insightfully written look at how the intersection of power, greed, superstition, and vanity can warp and obscure even the most brutally obvious crime…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Power of the Dog’

The newest film from Jane Campion is a somewhat tortured and brooding but still surprising drama set on the high plains where Benedict Cumberbatch makes a surprisingly believable rancher.

The Power of the Dog is playing on the festival circuit right now in what looks like a pretty certain play for the Oscars before being released on Netflix in December. My review is at Slant:

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility…

The trailer is here:

Writer’s Desk: Watch TV and Learn

Say you have written a book. You have been lucky enough to have your book published by a major house. Maybe you have even gotten some good press. But nevertheless, the income stream is negligible. What do you do to keep writing and not have to hold down a separate job?

Maybe write a book that has a better chance of being optioned for a streaming or television adaptation. In “The Rise of Must-Read TV,” Alexander Manshel, Laura B. McGrath, and J. D. Porter note how streaming services like Netflix (which has had great success with book-sourced series like The Queen’s Gambit [pictured above]) have been on a “buying spree” of book properties.

The writers studied what makes a book more appealing to the interests of TV producers looking to populate a big, broad-appeal series. They identified a few common characteristics:

Although not every novel under contract for potential adaptation shares all of these features, they do seem to possess a consistent set of what we call “option aesthetics”: episodic plots, ensemble casts, and intricate world-building. These are the characteristics of contemporary fiction that invite a move from the printed page to the viewing queue.

These are just dramatic choices you can make. If (and only if) they work well for the story you have in mind, then run with it. Remember: Jennifer Egan modeled A Visit from the Goon Squad on The Sopranos.

Screening Room: ‘The Dry’

My review of the perfectly okay new Eric Bana mystery The Dry is at Slant:

It would be difficult to find a worse candidate for solving the murder-suicide that lies at the heart of Robert Connolly’s The Dry than its hero, federal police officer Aaron Falk (Eric Bana). Not only is he prejudiced about the case because he was once close friends with Luke (Martin Dingle Wall), the initial suspect, but almost everyone in the small town where the killings took place despises Aaron for his connection to a 20-year-old scandal. In reality, this would create a near-impossible barrier for any investigator to overcome. But this is the kind of mystery where a standup cop willing to doggedly bang his head against enough walls can always knock the truth loose, even if he might be a murderer himself…

The trailer is here:

TV Room: ‘The Underground Railroad’

In Barry Jenkins’ 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, the famed abolitionist rescue network is made into an actual railroad that spirits enslaved people out of the South.

The Underground Railroad will be streaming on Amazon Prime starting May 14. My review is at PopMatters:

Jenkins is generally more experiential than plot-driven, and so the show ripples with the kind of silently evocative and luxuriantly filmed moments that gave Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Speak much of their power. But still, even though the series also has its share of sinking-gut horror and hairbreadth escapes, Jenkins ultimately delivers a subtler and yet grander impact by telling the story as a unified whole rather than a string of attention-grabbing peaks and valleys to jolt viewers out of pandemic streaming torpor…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Cherry’

Adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry stars Tom Holland as a slacker who goes to war and turns to addiction and then bank robbery once back on the home front.

Cherry is playing now on Apple+. My review is at Slant:

“I’m 23 years old,” Cherry says in the narration stringing together the film’s earlier, more hyperactive stretches, “and I still don’t understand what it is that people do.” The center, if he ever had one, is just not holding…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Passing’

One of the more surprisingly subtle movies at Sundance Film Festival this year was Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of Passing, the lauded Harlem Renaissance novel by Nella Larsen.

Passing is currently seeking distribution and should open in theaters or stream later this year. My review is at Slant:

Irene (Tessa Thompson) is a black Harlem homemaker who gets more than she bargained for when she tries to pass for white. Walking into a grand hotel that wouldn’t serve her if any of the staff identified her as black, she sits down for a civilized tea only to catch the eye of Clare (Ruth Negga), a childhood friend who’s been passing for many years, married to a white husband who doesn’t realize she’s black. They share confidences but keep their guard up, like rival spies in enemy territory feeling the other out. When the two run into Clare’s husband, John (Alexander Skarsgård), he makes his opinions clear with a racial epithet, leading to a charged moment in which it seems that Irene might let Clare’s secret slip, just to spite him…

Screening Room: ‘The White Tiger’

In the new movie from Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes, Fahrenheit 451), a kid from a dirt-poor Indian village discovers the price that must be paid to move up the social ladder. Based on the fantastic novel by Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger is coming to Netflix later this month.

My review is at Slant:

Narrating the film’s fast-paced plot with sly showmanship, Balram (Adarsh Gourav) lays out the humiliations that he endured and sins he committed in his rise from a poor Indian villager to a Bangalore entrepreneur. The speed of his change in circumstances, and his canny maneuvering of class differences, brings to mind everything from Charles Dickens to Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. But as Balram pointedly says in one of his many asides to the audience, after witnessing yet again the powerlessness of the poor, “don’t think for a second there’s a billion-rupee gameshow you can win to get out of it.” Instead, his escape route is through the rich family that he sacrifices everything to work for…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Father’

Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his play The Father is one of the year’s best-acted movies, thanks to Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins.

The Father is opening soon wherever movies play these days. Go find it. My review is at Slant:

A quietly terrifying drama about dementia, The Father starts off inauspiciously as a simple chamber piece in which a daughter spars in semi-comic exasperation with her retired father over his inability to live on his own anymore. Set in a tony London flat, the drama initially appears to take place inside the kind of tastefully cinematic milieu where nothing earth-shattering ever seems to happen. But before long, Zeller upends expectations by revealing the true depths of the father’s problems through dramatic perspective shifts that undermine any sense of cozy remove…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Midnight Sky’

George Clooney’s adaptation of the Lily Brooks-Dalton novel Good Morning, Midnight is a beautiful but bleak look at the end of the world.

The Midnight Sky lands on Netflix December 23. My review is at The Playlist:

Knowing that what we imagine is more terrifying than what we see, “The Midnight Sky” plays the end of the world pretty close to the vest, with nary a devastated cityscape to be seen. It is a canny move for a movie that pivots around an apocalyptic disaster, and one that pays off at times by refocusing the story from the spectacle of loss to its rending emotional reality. But while less-is-more tends to be a smart play when trying for awards season credibility, there are times when George Clooney’s latest directorial effort trips up on its own earnestness…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Prom’

Now that the only way to see Broadway is on TV, it’s a good thing that Netflix is getting in on the theater game. Next week sees the release of the star-heavy adaptation of the 2018 musical The Prom.

My review is at PopMatters:

Turning a high school dance into a crucible for a showdown about acceptance and homophobia via some high-kicking dance numbers and tongue-in-cheek humor feels like a reimagining of Ryan Murphy’s Glee. Now that Murphy has adapted the musical for Netflix, the process has come full circle, though not always in a good way…

Here’s the trailer: