Jodorowsky’s Dune


Space...the way-out frontier...

Space…the way-out frontier…

(2013) Documentary (Sony Classics) Alejandro Jodorowsky, Chris Foss, Michel Seydoux, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Gary Kurtz, Nicolas Winding Refn, Drew McWeeny, Devin Faraci, Diane O’Bannon, Christian Vander, Jean-Pierre Vignau, Amanda Lear, Dan O’Bannon (archival audio). Directed by Frank Pavich

Getting a film made in Hollywood is a treacherous, heartbreaking process. For every movie that makes it to your multiplex, dozens more fall by the wayside, victims of escalating budgets, script issues or studio indifference – or any of a thousand different reasons. Some movies that might have been great just never get beyond the dreams of a filmmaker.

Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker, became famous in the early 70s for El Topo and Holy Mountain, a pair of surrealist epics that essentially created the midnight movie market. Both were successes in the United States which, given the modern more pedestrian tastes in movies, seems almost impossible. We did a lot of drugs back then though.

His success was such that French producer Michel Seydoux gave him carte blanche to do whatever project he wished and when asked what he wanted to do, he famously blurted out Dune even though he’d never read the Frank Herbert classic science fiction novel. One of the biggest-selling sci-fi novels of all time, Dune was everything that would seem to guarantee box office success; a rabid following, epic scope, sex, violence, monsters and intelligence. Okay, maybe the latter doesn’t guarantee box office success quite so much.

Jodorowsky set out to assemble a crew of geniuses both in front of the camera and behind it. To set his landscapes and draw up the overall look of the film, he enlisted Jean Giraud, better known as Mobius of the underground science fiction comic magazine Heavy Metal. To design his creatures, he called upon then relatively unknown Swiss artist H.R. Giger who would go on to design the title creatures in Alien. The spaceships would be designed by well-known book cover painter Chris Foss. One of his designs graces this review, above.

For the script he picked up Dan O’Bannon, who at the time had finished Dark Star and would later be known for writing Alien among others. He also added Douglas Turnbull for special effects. Jodorowsky wanted a frame by frame storyboard which he collected in a huge book which eventually became legendary throughout Hollywood.

Jodorowsky was no less eclectic for his choices in front of the screen. For the pivotal role of Duke Leto, he cast David Carradine, then at the height of his fame for Kung Fu. The Machiavellian emperor Shaddam IV would be played by painter Salvador Dali, who wanted to be the highest-paid actor in Hollywood for the privilege, demanding the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 an hour. That was a lot more than the budget that Seydoux had envisioned could tolerate, but he figured out a way around it by asking Jodorowsky how much onscreen time the emperor would get. When Jodorowsky told him three minutes, Seydoux went back to Dali and said “we’ll pay you $100,000 for every minute of time your character is onscreen!” which satisfied Dali.

He also enlisted the great Orson Welles as the corpulent villain Baron Harkonen, promising him that they would secure the services of his favorite French chef to be his personal chef during the shoot. He got Mick Jagger to take the part of Feyd Ruatha after running into him at a party. He cast his son Brontis as Paul Atreides, the Messianic hero of the tale put him through extensive martial arts and sword training – six hours a day for two years. That his son still talks to Jodorowsky today is something of a minor miracle.

The movie was at last ready to shoot. When it came time to get a studio to finance and distribute the movie however, every single one balked. They were concerned with the psychedelic nature of the movie and worried that it wouldn’t recoup its high for its time budget ($15 million). The movie wasn’t just stillborn, it died in the womb.

At 84, Jodorowsky remains lively, engaging and intelligent. He still speaks passionately about the project even though it must have disappointed him terribly that it was never made. Watching him speak about the project and about the events surrounding it is worth the price of admission alone but on top of that we get to see the amazing production art that was created for the film by Mobius, Foss and Giger. Some of the images would go on to influence other films in the genre from Alien to The Terminator to Blade Runner to Prometheus to the David Lynch version of Dune that followed (and that Jodorowsky proclaimed to be “terrible,” with some relief).

If the documentary has some drawbacks, there are at least two. First, the electronic score by Kurt Stenzel is annoying. Yes it sounds like the electronic film music of the 70s and is somewhat appropriate given the subject matter but I found it overly loud and unpleasant, which also signifies that I’m turning into my dad.

Secondly, there is a tendency for artists to be a little bit egotistical which is understandable given the nature of what they do but when you throw in condescending into the mix it becomes like nails on a chalkboard to me. It is art with a capital A to some people and they speak of art as essentially license to do and say as they please because, well, it’s Art. I get that this might well have been an amazing film had it been made but it might just as well have been virtually unwatchable. One of the talking heads (I think it was Faraci, an internet movie critic) mused that the movie business might have been changed forever had Jodorowsky’s version of Dune been made before Star Wars, believing that movie blockbusters would have wound up being more intelligent and more adult in general than they became because of the impact of George Lucas.

It is a bit arrogant to presume anything. It’s possible that this version of Dune could have become as influential and as game-changing as Star Wars  became but let’s be frank here: it’s likely that Star Wars would have been made anyway and even more likely that it would have been as big a hit. The era of the ’70s was already on its way out by the time “A long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away” first crawled across movie screens. The temperature of the nation was changing too. One movie wasn’t going to make a difference in that regard. The movies don’t change America; the movies reflect America. Anyone who believes differently is delusional.

These gripes aside, this is a fascinating look at a movie that never got made. It doesn’t really give us any sort of insight into the film business – this was being made far outside of Hollywood both literally and figuratively. It does give us insight into a madman slash dreamer who had the audacity and the will to chase his vision even though it never made it into the kind of fruition he wanted it to be. Some things are not meant to be but that doesn’t mean we don’t pursue them as far as we can take them. You never know what unexpected tangents may come of the pursuit and that is always worthwhile to find out.

REASONS TO GO: Jodorowsky is a fascinating interview. Production art is stunning. Definitely has some “what if” moments.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally gets a bit condescending to its audience.  Annoying soundtrack.

FAMILY VALUES:  A little bit of swearing, some drug references and some violent and/or sexual images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming the movie, Seydoux and Jodorowsky reunited and decided to make another movie together. That film, La Danza de la Realidad, was Jodorowsky’s first in 23 years and made its debut at Cannes in the same year as this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: 21

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff


An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

(2010) Documentary (Strand) Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Kim Hunter, John Mills, Alan Parker, Thelma Schoonmaker, Freddie Francis, Rafaella de Laurentiis, Richard Fleischer, Peter Yates, Kathleen Byron, Orson Welles. Directed by Craig McCall

The golden age of Hollywood was marked by larger than life stars and beautifully photographed films in gorgeous black and white or later, in epic Technicolor. Part of the reason those movies looked so good were men like Jack Cardiff – not that there were many like him.

Cardiff has worked with some of the greatest names in Hollywood – from the stars (Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn) to the directors (Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Michael Powell). He came out of the British cinema working with the director-writer team of Powell and Emeric Pressburger which was better known as “The Archers” and with them was responsible for such classics as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus (for which he won the Oscar) and A Matter of Life and Death.

He would go on to work on other movies including The African Queen, The Vikings, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace, The Prince and the Showgirl (the Laurence Olivier/Marilyn Monroe film chronicled in My Week With Marilyn), Death on the Nile, Ghost Story and Rambo: First Blood Part II. He was active until 2007 but would pass away in 2009 while this film was in post-production.

Cardiff was known for his expertise with the then-nascent Technicolor process. Many cinematographers, used to black and white, had trouble when it came to color. You would think not since we all see in color but the fact is that the use of color can be a tricky thing when it comes to art and cinema. Cardiff always knew how to use color both subtly and epically.

McCall utilizes both archival footage and recent interviews with Cardiff and some of the people he’s worked with over the years. The segments featuring Cardiff are the most fascinating; he’s got a lot of interesting stories and his home movies on the set feature the stars letting down their hair somewhat are fascinating.

We don’t get a lot of background about Cardiff’s personal life. In fact, none at all that I can remember. I would have appreciated a bit of insight into who he was personally but that’s not really what this film is about – it’s about his professional life. That’s why his profession is the title of the movie and comes before his name although it might have been more accurately subtitled The Work and Not So Much the Life of Jack Cardiff.

There are a few too many talking heads mostly all saying essentially the same things. I thought the movie could have done with more examples of Cardiff’s work and more of Cardiff himself and less of people saying what a legend he is. But the movie serves to remind us of how glorious that age was and how much modern cinema owes to Cardiff. It makes you want to run right out and rent a copy of Black Narcissus and that can’t be a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: A look back at one of the greatest and most influential cinematographers ever. A reminder of Hollywood’s glamour.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many talking heads. Tells us next to nothing about the man himself.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cardiff is to date the only cinematographer to be honored with a special Oscar (in 2001).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some additional home movies Cardiff shot on the sets of his classic films as well as an examination of the three-strip Technicolor process that was one of his trademarks.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $20,840 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Black Death

Pontypool


Pontypool

Georgina Reilly has an eating problem.

(IFC) Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Rick Roberts (voice), Daniel Fathers (voice), Beatriz Yuste, Tony Burgess. Directed by Bruce McDonald

We use language as a tool to communicate; as a matter of fact it is a necessity. Without language we can’t communicate and without communication society tends to descend into chaos. Language is a prerequisite for civilization. In recent years, we have added enough jargon, slang and nonsense to stretch the English language to the breaking point. What would happen if our language began to fight back?

Grant Mazzy (McHattie) is a shock jock who has seen better days. Fired from his job at a big city station for saying things over the air that his station manager didn’t want him to say, he has landed as the morning drive time jock at the sole radio station in Pontypool, a flea speck of a town in northern Ontario, and I’m thinking it wasn’t the one Neil Young had in mind when he wrote “Helpless.”

Once a voice in the Canadian consciousness, Mazzy is reduced to reporting about lost cats, drinking enough coffee (heavily spiked of course) to drown said cats, and bickering with his producer, Sydney Briar (Houle). His engineer, Laurel-Ann Drummond (Reilly) just returned from a tour of Afghanistan and tends to want Mazzy to speak his mind whereas Sydney wants no repetition of the incident that got him fired and makes it clear he’s on a short leash. All in all not the most dazzling first day on the job.

Then, strange reports begin to come in. The “Sunshine Traffic Copter” (that is in reality a guy parked in a truck on top of a hill overlooking the town) reports a crowd gathering outside the office of the local physician, Dr. Mendez (Alianak). Soon, the increasingly agitated Ken Loney (Roberts) – the guy parked in the truck – makes it clear that the mob is getting violent, ugly. And as the morning wears on, it becomes even clearer that there is something wrong with the people of Pontypool – they’ve developed a taste for human flesh.

As authority breaks down, the three slowly realize that they are under siege in their basement studio. Eventually, Dr. Mendez arrives at the station and informs them that there is a virus going around, but no ordinary one – it is carried through certain words in the English language. In fact, the only way to maintain safety is to speak French, which will certainly have the French separatists in Quebec giving the citizens of Canada a great big “I told you so.”

All kidding aside, this no-budget Canadian horror film is actually rather effective. McDonald, whose last film was the less-than-stellar The Tracey Fragments does a good job of utilizing the claustrophobic nature of the basement sound studio, maintaining the frustration of the staff as they struggle to discover what is going on outside their doors. McHattie, Reilly and Houle all do credible jobs as people who don’t particularly like each other suddenly forced to depend on each other.

It takes a little while for the tension to get amped up but once it gets there, McDonald and writer Tony Burgess sustain it nicely. The ending is also nicely ambiguous, not only leaving room for further sequels (apparently one is in the works) but also leaving viewers wanting a sequel.

The budget is virtually non-existent, forcing a bit of creativity for the moviemakers. Almost all of the action takes place in the sound booth where Mazzy does his thing; while that gives a nice feeling of claustrophobia, it also makes for a very static film, almost as if it were the filmed version of a play. While Orson Welles’ version of The War of the Worlds was effective in its day, radio reports of horror don’t really move the modern horror film audience as profoundly.

However, props and kudos to the filmmakers for taking an unusual concept and sticking to it; many filmmakers don’t have that kind of courage of conviction. Pontypool won’t rewrite the horror genre, but it does provide a thoughtful, insightful thriller with horrific elements that should keep fans who like their horror less visceral and more cerebral quite satisfied.

WHY RENT THIS: A taut thriller with horror elements that utilizes the claustrophobic nature of its main setting nicely.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie drags in places and with the action mainly limited to a single room, lacks a bit of scope that might have served the story better.

FAMILY VALUES: Unrated; there isn’t a lot of gore although there is some. There’s also a bit of foul language and a good deal of tension; definitely not for the squeamish or the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tony Burgess, who plays Tony/Lawrence in the movie, also wrote the screenplay as well as the novel it’s based upon.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Actually, there’s a fair amount of extras here, including a trio of short films unrelated to the main feature, as well as the audio-only CBC radio version of the play the movie is based on.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Predators

New Releases for the Week of December 18, 2009


Avatar

Exotic lifeforms abound in the world of Pandora as envisioned by James Cameron.

AVATAR

(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi. Directed by James CameronIt’s here at last, the most anticipated movie of 2009 and if early reports are correct, this could be a game-changer for the way movies are made. Director Cameron, in his first non-documentary feature since Titanic, creates the world of Pandora from the ground up; it involves a conspiracy by humans to grab an extremely rare element from the ground beneath a peaceful indigenous tribe. They send in a wounded marine in the form of an avatar, an artificially grown lifeform with the DNA of both human and Na’vi (said indigenous lifeform) with the marine’s consciousness imprinted on the avatar. However, the perfect plan goes awry when the marine begins to suspect that the humans aren’t necessarily the good guys.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking)

Did You Hear About the Morgans?

(Columbia) Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen. A sophisticated New York couple on the verge of splitting apart witness a murder and are whisked away into the Federal Witness Protection Program with a contract killer on their tails. Unfortunately, their new home in rural Wyoming seems to only be exacerbating their marital issues. Will these citified fish in country waters adjust to their surroundings, rekindle their relationship and avoid getting shot?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references and momentary violence)

Me and Orson Welles

(Freestyle) Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Ben Chaplin. The latest from indie director Richard Linklater is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow. It’s a coming of age tale about a young actor who lucks into a role of a 1937 New York stage production of Julius Caesar directed by none other than Orson Welles.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references and smoking)