Movies Watched, February 2024

Still from “Dune: Part Two,” directed by Denis Villeneuve

As the title suggests, Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two” is really the climactic second half of the original book. So it benefits from comprising all of the biggest, most dramatic set pieces that naturally fall into the second half of most novels. It’s scaled up and larger than “Part One”; its action is more sweeping and it gives you the satisfaction of (more or less) resolving the actual storyline that ended on a cliffhanger in its predecessor.

If you show up at the theater—an IMAX theater, ideally—expecting to see operatic space intrigue, enormous spacecraft, towering explosions and people riding the backs of building-sized sand worms, you get all of this, in spades. Villeneuve is among the most gifted directors working today, and everything he delivers here is in the ninety-ninth percentile of the smartest and more impactful blockbuster filmmaking of the past several decades.

But the movie that the director fashions from author Frank Herbert’s original, already ornate architecture is also much deeper and more complex than both its predecessor and, surprisingly, the source material. Villeneuve makes a series of key choices that decouple his movie from the book, finding ingenious ways to both simplify the many, many ideas packed into Herbert’s prose while also fleshing others out with his uncommon ingenuity and insight.

Primarily, he confronts more directly and much less sentimentally than one would expect the question of the white savior trope at the heart of the narrative. His movie does more than just pay lip service to the subtextual quandary of whether we, with our buckets of popcorn and giant-sized sodas, should really be rooting for Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, a western-coded white male who ostensibly rescues a third world-coded population?

The script that Villeneuve cowrote with Jon Spaihts tweaks the book’s twists and turns to offer a more honest truth about the devil’s bargain that the protagonist strikes in order to achieve victory. One of its key methods is to refactor Zendaya’s Chani, elevating the character from a fundamentally inert “girlfriend” role into a much more crucial element of the story. In this conception, Chani becomes a unique kind of audience surrogate. Not in the common sense of that role, where a naïve or uninitiated character allows a movie’s script to basically explain the rules of the world to them and, by extension, to those of us watching. Rather, Chani is a beacon for 21st century filmgoers’ skepticism of not just that white savior trope, but also of the kind of cult of personality that fuels the rise of Chalamet’s character. Chani is objective, protesting and vocal as events unfold with ominous undertones, and Zendaya, to my surprise, delivers a rivetingly convincing performance. With every line reading, every penetrating stare or glance, she communicates a richly conflicted interiority that propels the counterstory forward. It’s a remarkable performance that I didn’t appreciate for its full artfulness and effectiveness until my second viewing. Yes, I saw it a second time, and it won’t be the last time.

It’s worth pointing out how significant it is that such complicated performances and ideas are at the heart of what’s shaping up to be a sizable box office hit. In his weekly box office analysis newsletter FranchisRE, David A. Gross comments on the recent string of disappointing super-hero releases in the context of the success of “Dune: Part Two”:

With a few exceptions (Star Wars, Avatar), superheroes surpassed science fiction in popularity during their dominant run. In their heyday, superheroes would have scoffed at vulnerable human characters like these. Superheroes don’t need gizmos on their nose to survive. They can fly through any atmospheric conditions. They can do whatever they want. They’re omnipotent.

But look what’s happening now. Audiences are connecting with these human, vulnerable faces, while superheroes have grown self-absorbed and detached. ‘Dune’ is leading with its humanity, while superheroes are having a hard time holding on to theirs.”

I’m a huge fan of Gross’s sentiment, but I’m not ready to declare victory just yet. Even if, inspired by “Dune,” studios suddenly start greenlighting a series of pensive, complex, people-centered science fiction epics, how do you replicate the once-in-a-generation talent of Denis Villeneuve? Still, we can always hope for better movies because once in a while, as with this one, we actually get them.


Here’s the full list of all twelve movies I watched in February. (Technically I first saw “Dune: Part Two” on the first day of March, but I’m sneaking it into this post.) This is the latest in my monthly roundups of movies I’ve been watching. You can also see everything I watched in January, and summaries of everything I watched in 2023, 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.

  1. The Goonies” (1985) ★½
    This inane, Spielbergian kids adventure includes a tremendous amount of shouting and is tonally all over the place—but some people adore it, for some reason. I don’t get it.
  2. Adventures of Arsène Lupin” (2004) ★
    Incomprehensible, ridiculous and bombastic rendering of the classic French story of a gentleman thief, but I still watched it all the way through to see Kristin Scott Thomas.
  3. American Fiction” (2023) ★★★½
    A genial satire about the publishing industry and the market for Black literature. It’s really more of a comfort than a provocation, but it’s still wickedly funny.
  4. Killers of the Flower Moon” (2023) ★★★
    Rewatched. Few people seem to be willing to acknowledge that this Scorsese epic is not just overly long, but also a storytelling mess. Not me, I say it like it is.
  5. Defending Your Life” (1991) ★★★½
    Rewatched. This Albert Brooks comedy about how we’re judged after we die went over my head as a teenager, but I get it now: it’s about being middle aged.
  6. The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” (2023) ★★★
    A very watchable cinematic staging of the classic play with two fatal flaws: a rocky performance from Kiefer Sutherland and an unwillingness to rethink the play’s dumb ending.
  7. The English Patient” (1996) ★★★★
    Rewatched. An epic romance that has all the signs of the kind of prestige Oscar bait that I normally decry, except in this case it’s somehow extraordinarily good.
  8. Cruella” (2021) ★½
    Yet another completely pointless bit of merchandising from the genius collective at the Disney marketing department.
  9. Bodies Bodies Bodies” (2022) ★★★★
    A horror thriller with a brain, even if it does star Pete Davidson. Sharply executed, bitingly hilarious, and an instant classic.
  10. The Beekeeper” (2024) ★
    Dumb as a box of rocks, obviously, but offers the alluring mystery of trying to figure out whether or not the filmmakers were aware of exactly how dumb?
  11. Orion and the Dark” (2024) ★★★
    Charlie Kaufman finally gives the world what it’s been waiting for: an animated kids movie encapsulating all of his neuroses and anxieties.
  12. Dune” (2021) ★★★★
    Rewatched. This was my sixth viewing and it was even better than I remembered.