Mar 30, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

This illuminating and entertaining documentary by Frank Pavich centers on the ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune that enfant terrible Alejandro Jodorowsky got close to making but never got off the ground. It is required viewing for anyone who dreams of making a movie, because it is at once tremendously inspiring and heartbreaking. It encompasses the passion, the collaboration, the singular madness, the universal dream that movies are, and the pitfalls of getting them made. In fact, it should be seen by anyone who is working on an artistic project. Jodorowsky has very astute insights on the creative process.
Since we are talking about Jodorowsky and not any run of the mill director, this movie is also about a seemingly insane charismatic leader marshaling forces to create what in his vision was to be the most important movie ever made.
Jodorowsky's deeply idiosyncratic and provocative films became successful in the 70s (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) and he was suddenly in the position to get French financing to make a movie. He chose Dune, which he had not even read yet (a friend told him it was cool). He set out to look for spiritual warriors, as he called them, since he wanted this movie to be a spiritual breakthrough, to give people an LSD trip without the drugs, to open minds. It was to be a movie that would change human consciousness (hey, these were the 70s). 
So he went on his quest to find the perfect team and he assembled a formidable and in some cases, borderline ridiculous group of talents, among them the great artists Moebius and H. R. Giger, who did spectacular designs. For the role of Emperor of the Universe no one but Salvador Dalí would do (makes perfect sense), and for an enormous malevolent character, he thought of Orson Welles, who had ballooned to gigantic proportions. Mick Jagger was to play a part. Some of the music was going to be by Pink Floyd. You don't get the picture.
Jodorowsky, who is more in touch with the symbolic, archetypal, metaphoric, spiritual world than most people, had his own intuitive way of finding good collaborators. By all accounts, he was an impassioned motivator who gave great freedom to his artists. Not a dictator, but a madman with a vision.He storyboarded the entire film with over 3000 frames, mostly by Moebius, and put it all together in a book thicker than the Yellow Pages. Apparently, there are only two copies in the world today. Pavich has animated some of the storyboard sequences and the frames are so dynamic and gorgeous that I would be happy to watch the entire thing this way.
Jodorowsky seems to have been an immensely charming and charismatic cajoler. To get his way, he promised burning giraffes to Dalí (a total diva) and, to a reluctant Welles, the chef of a Parisian five-star restaurant for location catering. But he also had an enormous ego. It is worth pondering the psychological ramifications of casting his own 12 year-old son as a Messiah figure and putting him through a merciless immersion in martial arts training to prepare him for the role. He took enormous liberties with the original story, emphasizing, not surprisingly, a character with an ego so huge, he lives in a palace shaped like himself.
It is folly, but it is organized, crafted and magnificently imagined: transformed into art. Even better, it seems eminently doable. Three fourths of the movie are devoted to Jodorowsky's creative and casting process, and he is a very entertaining raconteur. But at some point one thinks: whence the money?
And here lies the heartbreak. Unfortunately, to make cinematic dreams, you need money, or as Jodorowsky calls it, "this shit". In those days, the only place to go for help was Hollywood. So he and his producer Michel Seydoux pitched it at every major studio. The studios all loved that amazing book; they even thought that the $15 million budget (about $80 million today) was not unreasonable, but none would make it. They wanted it, but without Jodorowsky. They didn't trust him not to go over budget, and as Nicholas Winding Refn intimates in the film, they were afraid of his expanding mind. They knew they could not control him. He was the wrong dog barking at the only tree. Jodorowsky says, "it's my dream and you don't change my dream". And the studios would say, "Well, it's my money, so I can change your dream": History Of The Movies, in a nutshell. You can still feel Jodorowsky's ferocious anger at this epic frustration.
Dune never got made. Well, it got made by David Lynch, or as Jodorowsky generously puts it, by a De Laurentiis producer, into the clumsy movie fit for Mystery Science Theater 3000 that we know today.  One can imagine the producers barking on the phone a la Sam Goldwyn, "get me the American Jodorowsky", and that's how you arrive at David Lynch.
However, there is a coda that took my breath away and which I won't disclose here, but let's say that two of the artists who collaborated on the better Dune went on to create one of the best Sci-Fi movies of all time. Which is a surprising and deeply restorative insight into what may come out of devastating creative frustration. It is obvious that Jodorowsky's Dune made the rounds in the studios and it influenced, whether consciously or not, every subsequent Sci-Fi movie ever made, including Star Wars, which is like a really dumbed down version (and a movie I detest).
Jodorowsky's Dune is an admiring film and it lets you feel in the blanks for some unexplored spaces. If the adults were utterly devastated by the demise of the movie, how did Jodorowsky's teenage son deal with it? What were the consequences to their relationship? An end title reads that Jodorowsky and Seydoux parted ways, one imagines in catastrophic bitterness. The movie doesn't elaborate except to cheer us up by mentioning that they are collaborating again 35 years later.
This could easily have been a cynical movie, but it is a celebration of creative ambition. Jodorowsky's Dune is not only about the clash between dreams, the concrete shape they take as movies and the financial constraints that hamper their creation, but it is about how art, images and movies influence us at the deepest subconscious level and they suffuse far more of our lives, as creators or spectators, than we can ever fathom.

Mar 16, 2014


The night I saw this film by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies), he was at the theater warning people not to get upset and not to think they're crazy. In fact, at the end of the movie some people were upset and thought he was crazy. This may be a problem of audience expectations. If you are expecting a conventional thriller, you may feel your chain was yanked. But Enemy, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as two identical men, belongs to a rare genre of surreal movies. Think of this movie, based on a novel by José Saramago, as a cousin to Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. This will give you a better idea of genre.
Adam Bell, a brooding professor of philosophy, finds out he has a double, living near him in Toronto, which Villeneuve covers with a yellowish haze. Gyllenhaal is quite good, but as one of him freaks out about his double, one wonders what's the big deal. Why is he so tortured? Villeneuve answers our questions incrementally. One thing is to find someone who looks exactly like you; apparently we're all supposed to have a doppelganger. But who sounds like you? Who is you but not you? That's creepy.  As evidenced by what these guys do for a living, one teaches philosophy and his double is an actor, we are in the realm of existential questions. Neither of the guys is very defined as a character. There is not a lot of detail to their lives: metaphor central.
However, the reality of plot threatens the mystery that Villeneuve tries to sustain. Audiences will always ask logical questions: Why make an appointment to meet your double at a remote motel, instead of a well lit Starbucks?  Because this is more the world of dreams and Freudian symbols; not a playful movie about the mischievous possibilities of mistaken identity, but one shrouded in existential dread. Kudos go to the director for attempting to sustain the difficult trick of balancing the concrete logic of plot and the mystery of metaphor with a coherent, if humorless hand. On occasion, Enemy threatens to fall into ridiculousness, but Villeneuve saves it by suffusing it with a steady sense of dread. This is aided by beautiful and disturbing music by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans, and by the way the camera seems to creep slowly into everything, including a somehow empty, yet always gridlocked Toronto.

Mar 14, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson is currently exploring darker, deeper territory than he ever has in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the most melancholy and sad of his movies, and although it looks like a gorgeous confection, I am not sure that the feelings it evokes and Anderson's ultra-refined style mesh smoothly. Perhaps his depth as an artist has outgrown his style.
It is, as usual, visually ravishing.The lovely cinematography is by Robert Yeoman. The costume and production design are spectacular.
It is also an intricate Chinese box of stories. A writer (Tom Wilkinson) remembers when he used to visit the decrepit Hotel Zubrowka, empty and decaying under communist rule, when he was young and looked like Jude Law. There he meets the once owner of the hotel, Mr. Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) who then tells the story of how he came to own it, when he apprenticed as a young lad (the charming and deadpan Tony Revolori) under the tutelage of the concierge to end all concierges, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).
Gustave is the epitome of civilization and a bit of a louche. He seduces the guests, be they male or female, yet he is heroically polite and true to his principles, which he bends on occasion for mostly practical reasons. Fiennes inhabits this man with quicksilver subtlety. He either recites long strands of adorned dialogue and romantic poetry, or is curt, sharp and vulgar the next breath. He does not stoop to caricature; he is precise but not punctilious, polite but never supercilious. He creates one of Anderson's most dimensional characters. He carries the movie beyond the arch and twee and slightly nonchalant, and gives it enormous dignity. He also looks like he bears an incredibly sad burden under his cheerful aplomb. He is nostalgia personified.
There is a very complicated plot about a will left by an old widow (Tilda Swinton, unrecognizable behind massive wrinkles) and her evil, greedy family that craves her fortune. And a business about the destruction of civilization by a Nazi-like regime, brutish totalitarian thugs with no use for art, culture or refinement.
There is more horror than usual. The story is lovely, the undercurrent of loss truly profound and moving. The loss of home, family ties, the loves of your life, of a world, the loss of nostalgia itself, of old fashioned storytelling, of the past, the loss of the idea of Europe as the wellspring of civilization art and sensibility. This does not prevent Gustave from spouting some prejudiced generalizations about immigrants like Zero, in case anybody accuses Anderson of glorifying colonial empires.
I share with him the nostalgia for something we are both too young to miss. A sense of loss of something we will never see again. He gets the seventies communist decor right (although significantly less drab), he gets the Mitteleuropa vibe right.
The sad layers of lost worlds burrow under your skin.
I have always liked Anderson's style, his charming visual gags, his technical panache. Every frame is rich with little visual winks. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of a rich and luscious cake of many tiers. So much detail! But even as I marveled at the beauty of every frame, at the sly wit of some of the sequences, at catching some cute joke on the corner of the frame, I feel that Anderson's style has become a little stifling. It certainly gets in the way of rhythm and it makes the movie drag, although one is so busy drinking in the images and chasing all the details, that it barely matters. The chase sequences are twee but lifeless, an escape from prison unfolds painstakingly but with little suspense. A couple of plot jolts work better, reminding the audience that despite the eye candy, we are truly invested in the fate of the main characters. But the movie feels like it needs fresh air, perhaps because most of it is shot in a studio and is deliberately claustrophobic. The hotel, the rooms, the elevators, the jail, everything is in constricted spaces. Everything is a square inside a square. As Anderson is clearly a gifted artist, I wonder what he could do with circles. What would happen, now that he is deepening his feel for human emotion, if he lent his attention to other shapes, different textures, other less meticulously arranged landscapes?

Mar 3, 2014

Oscars Postmortem 2014

Plus ça change. Funny how the Oscars always manage to be long, boring and predictable, even when one hopes against all reason that something alive and interesting could potentially happen in those four hours of tedium.
The long could be solved with more ruthless discipline and less stupid montages. The boring, ditto. The predictable is more complicated because in order to fix this, the Oscars would have to be the first awards of the season. By the time they roll around, in what is now the most exhausting foreplay in history, all the major contenders have already won all the other awards and are thus positioned to win this one as well. This is the major anti-climax of this show. That it has mushroomed out of control in terms of media coverage does not help it. It makes everything a foregone conclusion.
Ellen started out in good form, but as time seemed to get all Proustian on her, the jokes lost focus. The selfie thing was inspired (and so were the memes right after), but the pizza was not. And the getting money from the audience was icky.
If the idea of Ellen's humor was to make the audience believe that movie stars are regular people, the selfie was the only instance in which it worked. Even Angelina Jolie looked like she was having fun. The rest was a bit strained.
The people who write this show have a really antiquated notion of show business (and this is coming from someone who thinks they don't make anything like they used to).
It is not aging well and it is not glamorous. A perfect example of this desperately wanting to be young and hip and not knowing how to do so is bringing Pink to sing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Even worse is the decision to bring out the now tragically ghoulish Kim Novak to give an award for animation. What are these people thinking? The sadness of the plastic surgery nightmares (an almost unrecognizable Goldie Hawn) made me wonder how much better Kim Novak would look with her natural wrinkles. She would probably be still beautiful and alluring, not a freak from planet Hell. Apparently, and note to self, plastic surgery only looks good on the young.
But I digress. Poor Ellen, or anybody else who tries to host this schizophrenic old/young thing is caught between a rock and a hard place. Someone like Jimmy Fallon has a better idea of what is entertaining to people living in the current century, but I think he is indentured to NBC and they won't loan him. :(
Actors tend to be notoriously bad speech givers. Jared Leto mentioned almost every calamity on Earth and his lovely Mom, and learned the lesson of not just talking about his waxing problems, but methinks that trying to become Albert Schweitzer while picking up an acting prize is a tall order.
I love me Matthew McConaughey as an actor and as a Texan accent, and thus was quite disappointed by his enthusiasm for God. If you noticed, very few winners mentioned the Guy, opting to gush on their real creators, their Moms.
Progress -1, Religion - 0.
My favorite part of Cate Blanchett's extended maelstrom of self-absorption masquerading as inclusiveness was when she mentioned each fellow nominee.
About Meryl Streep's atrocious performance she could only muster: "What can I say?". Indeed. She sounded genuine about liking Amy Adams' work; the rest was just hot air. And by the way, Dame Judi Dench does not just have a career. She is God. God doesn't have careers.
I did like Blanchett's dressing down of Hollywood's refusal to make movies with and about women. She was also right, and had no choice but to thank "Woody", (awkward moment!), but I thought her shilling her own theater company was a bit crass. I didn't hear her thanking any agents. This year either everybody seemed to have gotten the memo or I was drinking too heavily to notice, but that was an improvement.
Lupita Nyong'o's speech was the most lovely, spontaneous, graceful, intelligent and moving of the entire night. This girl is a real, bona fide star.  Period.
I am extremely happy and relieved that cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki very deservedly and finally won on his sixth nomination. Next year, it's Roger Deakins or bust! (12 noms, no wins and he is the master of masters).
I'm also very happy for Alfonso Cuarón, who did do a better job than Steve McQueen, in my h. opinion. Payne, Russell and Scorsese were also very deserving, but Cuarón shepherded a seemingly quixotic project, and the movie is visually stunning.

Let me now unleash my fury at last night's montages. Someone with nary a creative thought in their brain decided that this was the year to celebrate heroes. As if Hollywood doesn't foist us with heroes up the wazoo enough. They had not one, but two montages about heroes. So out come the parades of mostly guys, as usual,  trying to impress their dads and save the world from "evil". This makes me extremely tired. Nikki Finke tweeted that this was the only way in which they could include the tentpole spectacles about men in tights that keep the billions of dollars rolling in. Maybe. I think it's sadder than that. Americans really believe in heroes. They genuinely think that's the way the world works. In foreign films, heroes are people who deal with enormous issues in their apartments, without a cape or an explosion in sight (cf. Amour). America likes their heroes supersized. Hence, most big Hollywood movies tell the same story. I don't understand how people don't get tired.
Notice, however, that in most of the best picture nominees this year (except for Captain Phillips, Philomena and Gravity) the protagonists are anti-heroes. This is what makes these movies exciting.
Anywho. I'm trying to figure out if there is a structural, revolutionary way to make the Oscars less tedious and less of an utterly meaningless timesuck. I'll let you know.
Until next year...