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Dune has spice… and daft giant worms, writes BRIAN VINER 

Dune (12A, 155 mins)

Rating:

Verdict: Out of this world

The French Dispatch (15, 108 mins)

Rating:

Verdict: Tiresomely mannered

James Bond is still on a one-man mission to save the beleaguered cinema industry, but he was at least joined yesterday by a rampaging army of angry giant sandworms. 

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is not the masterpiece some have proclaimed it to be, but it is the roaring, sprawling embodiment of a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen available.

Villeneuve’s last film, unveiled four years ago this month, was the excellent Blade Runner 2049 — the French-Canadian director has form in the business of tackling science-fiction material freighted with baggage. The baggage in that case was Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner. Could Villeneuve do it justice with a sequel after 35 years? He did.

With Dune, the baggage is Frank Herbert’s bestselling 1965 novel, which scared off film-makers with its narrative breadth and thunderous symbolism until David Lynch had a go in 1984, a suitably apt year in which to spin a futuristic yarn. Unfortunately, Lynch’s adaptation span out of control. It was a bloated, incomprehensible mess.

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is not the masterpiece some have proclaimed it to be, but it is the roaring, sprawling embodiment of a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen available. Timothee Chalamet is pictured above as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides

Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is not the masterpiece some have proclaimed it to be, but it is the roaring, sprawling embodiment of a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen available. Timothee Chalamet is pictured above as Paul Atreides and Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides

So here we are again, in the year 10191, transported once more to the planet of Arrakis, a fiercely inhospitable expanse of arid rolling desert where the only creatures that feel truly at home are those worms the size of dirigibles. Tunnelling through the sand, destroying everything in their path, they are meant to inspire awe. So I’m almost ashamed to report that I found them a hoot. They are risible dirigibles.

Arrakis, by the way, contrary to appearances, is also a treasure house. It contains vast quantities of ‘spice’, the most valuable commodity in this forbidding universe. Spice production is a guarantee of obscene wealth.

Without spice, we are told, ‘interstellar space travel is impossible’. You’d have to be a little slow on the uptake not to recognise spice as a euphemism for oil, our own earthly holy of holies.

The story begins on the more salubrious planet of Caladan, home to the noble house of Atreides, where dreamy Prince Paul (Timothee Chalamet) keeps having visions featuring a beguiling beauty from some faraway place.

Of particular interest to the Emperor’s mysterious Truthsayer (Charlotte Rampling in an extravagant black headdress), Paul’s vision turns out to be beautiful Chani (Zendaya), who lives on distant Arrakis as one of the oppressed Fremen tribe.

The Fremen, led by the brooding Stilgar (Javier Bardem), are warrior-serfs, subjugated by the dastardly House Harkonnen, who have been harvesting spice for decades and duly living high on the hog. Speaking of hogs, their ruthless leader is the terrifyingly corpulent Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard in a fat suit).

Are you keeping up? Back on Caladan, Paul’s father Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) plans an alliance with the Fremen as a way to muscle in on the spice business. In homage to Scary, Ginger, Sporty, Baby and Posh, let’s call him a spice wannabe. His wife Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) isn’t sure about any of this, and she’s not the only one. My tip is to mug up on the story beforehand.

Similarly unquenchable are the bagpipes with which the Atreides announce their arrival. Whether it’s depressing or uplifting to find that bagpipes are still around more than 8,000 years from now, with so much else having presumably fallen into extinction, you’ll have to decide for yourself

Similarly unquenchable are the bagpipes with which the Atreides announce their arrival. Whether it’s depressing or uplifting to find that bagpipes are still around more than 8,000 years from now, with so much else having presumably fallen into extinction, you’ll have to decide for yourself

Still, it’s a heck of a spectacle, with great visual effects, fabulous cinematography (by Greig Fraser), and a soaring Hans Zimmer score. It helps to keep that oil metaphor in mind as the Atreides troops land on Arrakis, aware that if the furious sandworms or the Harkonnen fundamentalists don’t nobble their attempts at friendly colonisation, the scorching heat will. Just to flog the modern-day allusions even harder, Paul refers to ‘a holy war spreading across the universe like unquenchable fire’.

Similarly unquenchable are the bagpipes with which the Atreides announce their arrival. Whether it’s depressing or uplifting to find that bagpipes are still around more than 8,000 years from now, with so much else having presumably fallen into extinction, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

If Dune is a hit, incidentally, then we are certain to get a sequel; this movie only covers half the story. I saw it at last month’s Venice Film Festival, emerging from the premiere into a hysterical mob of ‘Chalamaniacs’ desperate for a glimpse of young Timothee.

They will be thrilled that he also looms large in The French Dispatch, as a wild-haired student revolutionary in writer-director Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic ‘love letter’ to journalism in general and The New Yorker magazine in particular.

If Dune is a hit, incidentally, then we are certain to get a sequel; this movie only covers half the story

If Dune is a hit, incidentally, then we are certain to get a sequel; this movie only covers half the story

Anderson has certainly assembled a spectacular cast: Chalamet, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Willem Dafoe, Benicio Del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Owen Wilson, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Henry Winkler, Adrien Brody . . . the list goes on. And his film, segmented into four separate stories, each dramatising a feature article in The French Dispatch, supposedly an outpost in provincial France of a Kansas newspaper, is undeniably exquisite to look at, its every frame a thing of beauty.

Moreover, I write as a huge fan of Anderson’s last live-action feature, 2014’s glorious The Grand Budapest Hotel. His deliberately mannered narrative and visual style can work triumphantly.

But, while mindful of the rhapsodies heaped on it by others, and having seen it twice just to be sure, I found The French Dispatch to be a pretentious slog, mystifying in its storytelling, laboured in its comedy and generally far too adoring of itself. 

There are those who say much the same about The New Yorker, but I don’t think that was his point.

Oh Dear, this stage hit’s become a film flop 

Dear Evan Hansen (★★✩✩✩ 12A, 137 mins) is the film version of the hit stage musical about a troubled high school kid, Evan (Ben Platt), crippled with shyness and anxiety, forced to sustain the pretence that he was the best friend of a classmate who committed suicide.

The situation springs from the letters he writes to himself by way of therapy, one of which is found by the dead classmate’s mother (Amy Adams). She thinks her son wrote it, and so the misunderstanding develops.

Hats off for the idea of trying to address teenage mental health issues through the medium of a musical, but by the end of this overlong film I felt like I’d waded waist-high through treacle. It is slickly done, and a fine cast includes Julianne Moore as Evan’s single mum. But there are reasons why the film has bombed in the U.S. and I can’t disagree with any of them.

Best Sellers (★★✩✩✩ 15, 102 mins) tries just as hard, and fails even more dismally, to yank the heartstrings. It stars Michael Caine as Harris, an ancient, cantankerous author who, 50 years after he wrote his only novel, a big bestseller, is tempted away from his reclusive existence to save a venerable publishing house run by his old editor’s daughter, Lucy (Aubrey Plaza).

The pair then go on a tour to promote his new book, and I think we are meant to find their relationship by turns funny and moving. In fact it’s neither, largely because it isn’t remotely believable. Off the top of my head I could name 20 better odd-couple generation-gap movies. That said, it’s always nice to see Caine, who first said he was retiring and then that he wasn’t. Either way, we should probably cherish him while we can.

The Boss Baby 2: Family Business (★★✩✩✩ PG, 107 mins) is a sequel to The Boss Baby, the 2017 animation which gave a baby (voiced by Alec Baldwin) a business suit and a briefcase, and was great fun. Baldwin’s back for this one but, alas, it entirely lacks the charm of the original.

Best Sellers is on streaming platforms; the other two are in cinemas.

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