Friday, April 11, 2014


It’s a ridiculously crowded movie weekend here in the Valley; the two best I saw were, oddly, both documentaries about old men:

Jodorowsky’s DuneThough an interesting, badly uneven film of Dune by David Lynch was released in 1984, it was not the first attempt to bring Frank Herbert’s ponderous sci-fi epic to the screen. In the early and mid-‘70s, the Chilean-born avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky, famous/notorious for his Theater-of-Cruelty-style surrealist “midnight movie” western El Topo (1970) and a couple of other visually powerful but patience-taxing films, worked on an ambitious version of Herbert’s novel. Indeed, according to this documentary by Frank Pavich, Jodorowsky and his collaborators essentially finished the movie—on paper, in the form of a comprehensively detailed storyboard rendered by several of the top fantasy and sci-fi artists.

In Pavich’s film, Jodorowsky, still vital and garrulous in his eighties, recounts how he adapted Herbert’s tale, with considerable liberties—he refers to the process as “raping” Frank Herbert, “but with love”—and then recruited different artists to realize different aspects of his version: French comic-book great Jean “Moebius” Giraud for the characters, Brit sci-fi cover artist Chris Foss for the spaceships, Swiss illustrator H. R. Giger for the evil planet Harkonnen, American Dan O’Bannon for the special effects, and so on. Cast members were to include Jodorowsky’s son Brontis, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali!

Studio financing never materialized, and not a frame of the movie was ever shot. The thrust of the new film is twofold: First, the documentary asks, what if this had been the big space movie of the ‘70s, rather than Star Wars? Second, the filmmakers assert that Jodorowsky’s magnificent storyboard material has been pillaged by countless sci-fi, horror and fantasy films of the past four decades.

The first question is specious. You can argue that the Star Wars franchise, enjoyable as much of it is, helped make pop culture more insipid. But it doesn’t follow that if Jodorowsky had managed to realize his Dune project, we’d be a culture of avant-garde spiritualists. As to the storyboard’s influence, however, the movie uses compare-and-contrast to build a pretty convincing case.

I enjoyed Jodorowsky’s Dune as much as any film I’ve seen so far in 2014. I’m nowhere near deep enough to say whether Jodorowsky’s a visionary or a conman, but either way he’s irresistible—a buoyant, exuberant raconteur.

Indeed, as I sat watching him, I thought, this movie is so much better than the pretentious space opera that Jodorowsky would probably have made back then. Instead of glacially-paced spacescapes and portentous pronouncements, we get to see the beautiful illustrations—likely far more beautiful than their onscreen realizations would have been—while Jodorowsky describes, with infectious enthusiasm, key scenes from the movie in his head, or dramatically narrates his failed struggle to get it out of his head.

Near the end, he notes that with modern CGI capabilities, his Dune could be made, even if he’s dead. I’d like to see the effort, certainly, but I’m not sure, after Pavich’s film, that it’s necessary. I’ll take Jodorowsky’s Dune over Jodorowsky’s Dune anytime.

The Unknown KnownThis portrait of W. Bush-era Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is another jaw-dropper from the great Errol Morris. Rumsfeld is the only talking head here, and with the distance of retirement, and perhaps a bit chastened at the judgment even of many conservatives that the Iraq War was a disaster both morally and practically, the ruefully smiling fellow comes across as maybe the most unassuming of the rogue’s gallery from that administration. It’s startling when his mild-mannered interview footage with Morris—in this film we hear the director’s exasperated questions—is intercut with footage of his press conferences from the lead-up to and early days of the war, in which he’s condescending, combative, snidely dismissive of anybody’s doubts about the project.

The Unknown Known is a remarkable document, but it’s also a hypnotic, graphically complex piece of cinema, driven by Danny Elfman’s sad, tense music. As with 2003’s The Fog of War, the new film is about how an idiotically ill-advised military adventure can grow out of the intellectual abstraction of a bright, rational person. Rumsfeld’s arias of spin cross over into a gibberish that’s almost poetic, and at times he stops talking and grins in satisfaction at his own equivocations, as if they were Sufi parables.

An obsessive writer of memos—they were so abundant they became known as “snowflakes”—Rumsfeld seems to have gotten lost at times in a fog of words. In many memos he fixated on definitions, as if by using his terminology narrowly enough, he could somehow parse out a justification for the bloodbath.

Also opening this weekend:

Rio 2The 2011 animated kidflick was about a romance between two endangered blue macaws who might have been the last of their kind. In this sequel the two of them, voiced by Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway, travel with their three chicks from the title city to the Amazon rainforest, where they learn that the female’s old flock is thriving. Some lovely musical numbers ensue, sung by the likes of Bruno Mars, will. i. am. and Jamie Foxx, and “choreographed” in the style of Busby Berkeley. Come to think of it, I bet Berkeley would love to have worked with parrots, if he could have.

The best strand, however, belongs to Jemaine Clement as a vengeful cockatoo, Ellen Chenoweth as the brightly-colored frog who regards him with unembarrassed adoration, and a silent anteater who puts his prehensile tongue to spectacular use. Clement’s rendition of “I Will Survive” was my favorite number in the movie.

But the flock’s home is threatened by deforestation, and if you think about the reality this conflict represents, then sweet and tuneful as Rio 2 is, and sincere as the wish of its makers to raise environmental consciousness may be, it may leave you feeling as depressed and helpless as The Unknown Known.

Southern Baptist Sissies—Playing in Phoenix one night only, this Saturday at FilmBar, this is only nominally a movie. It’s really a well-produced video of a live L.A. performance of the play by Del Shores, concerning four adolescent boys (played by adults) in a Baptist church in Texas, and their varying struggles with the awareness that they’re gay. Central character Mark (Emerson Collins), who chats up the audience between lines of the hymns, notes that they were four out of forty kids in the congregation, so the percentage was about right.

All of the acting is good—Leslie Jordan and Dale Dickey, as two barflies representing the middle-aged lapsed-Baptist contingent, put on an entertaining drawl clinic—and there is some fine music, ranging from choir offerings to drag numbers. Make no mistake, however, this is no festive musical comedy, but a bluntly didactic, often tragic drama, and the later scenes are painfully overwrought, though never, alas, implausible.

I just hope that Shores knows that you don’t have to be gay to feel forsaken by the conservative-Christian idea of God. You only have to have, say, a fondness for masturbation, or a belief in evolution, or, maybe, some gay—or nonbelieving or Jewish or Muslim—friends that you don’t think ought to be flung into the fires of hell for being who they want to be.

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