Movies Without Pity

Indie Snapshot: Jodorowksy’s Dune

by Ethan Alter March 21, 2014 6:00 am
Indie Snapshot: <i>Jodorowksy’s Dune</i>

See the greatest movie never made. According to its director, anyway.

Jodorowsky's Dune joins Lost in La Mancha on the shortlist of documentaries that chronicle the greatest movies never made. And at least Terry Gilliam got some of his Don Quixote epic on film before production shut down; Alejandro Jodorowsky never shot a frame of his ambitious -- or, if you prefer, foolhardy -- mid-'70s adaptation of Frank Herbert's iconic sci-fi novel Dune. Instead, walking away from the failed project with a lavish bound volume containing his heady (and, it should it be noted, radically different) script and gorgeous pre-production art. A charismatic kook equally prone to malapropisms and inspirational speeches, Jodorowsky seizes the spotlight offered by Frank Pavich's admiring camera and launches into a full-throated argument for why, had his version of Dune made it to the screen, it would have changed the course of American cinema for the better.

While that's highly debatable, Pavich largely buys into the argument, celebrating Jodorowsky's vision without really questioning whether it was economically or creatively viable. To be sure, the director's plans do seem impressively grand on the page and the squad he assembled to pull Dune off -- including F/X master Dan O'Bannon and artist H.R. Giger -- is a murderer's row of talent. Furthermore, Jodorowsky's previous films, the cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, are fascinating enough to make you curious to see what he might have accomplished on a big-budget scale. But as Pavich walks us through the behind-the-scenes details with colorful commentary by the director and his creative team, it becomes increasingly clear that there's an enormous gulf between what Jodorowsky wanted to accomplish and what he could accomplish given the technology and budget available to him at the time.

Furthermore, the film's pronounced tut-tutting of the Hollywood studio system for not underwriting the director's grand adventure seems willfully blind to the way the movie business operates. Even in the mid-'70s, when the studios were taking greater risks, there were enough practical and commercial red flags surrounding Jodorowsky's conception of Dune that it's understandable that financiers backed off. (And, frankly, as a fan of the book, I found some of the director's creative choices highly questionable at best and deeply stupid at worst; but then, as Jodorowsky himself admits, he never bothered to actually read the thing before adapting it.) A more incisive documentary might have explored the director's self-delusions, and given voice to skeptics, in the same way that Lost in La Mancha captured some of Gilliam's self-destructive tendencies. Even in this surface-level version, Jodorowsky's Dune offers a mostly entertaining account of a movie that was probably never meant to exist.

A modest, unassuming coming-of-age story in the vein of Stand by Me (with birdwatching subbed in for dead body-hunting), A Birder's Guide to Everything taps Kodi Smit-McPhee to take over the Wil Wheaton role as David, the quiet introvert who routinely escapes from his troubled family life by hanging with a crew of best buds and amateur birders. In David's case, the troubles are related to a dead mother rather than a dead brother and the fact that, only a year after her passing, his father (James Le Gros) has taken up with -- and is preparing to marry -- her hot, young nurse. To distract himself from highly uncomfortable state of affairs, the 15-year-old becomes obsessed with spotting a rare duck, dragging his dorky pals as well as a cute girl (Katie Chung) out into the Connecticut woods to find it. Do I even need to mention that they have a few bitter arguments, and learn a bunch of life lessons, on the way? Originality may not be the film's strong suit, but the young cast is appealing and the film does effectively capture the emotional confusion that comes part and parcel with adolescence without getting histrionic about it. Stand By Me's killer '50s-era soundtrack is much-missed, though.

Finally, the only notable thing about the dull, glum cop drama McCanick is that it's the last film Cory Monteith completed before he died last year. The Glee star isn't the main character in the film -- that would be David Morse's titular narcotics detective, who is trying to track down a low-rent hoodlum (Montieth) for reasons that are both highly personal and highly nebulous. Set over the course of a day, the film finds the pushing-60 McCanick making one bad choice after another in his pursuit of Montieth's young crook. Hiding beneath a laughable wig, Montieth vainly tries to shed his teen idol persona, but both he and Morse (a perpetually underrated character actor who has the misfortune of saying yes to some questionable star vehicles) are undone by a flat-footed script and an ending that strains for drama, but plays more like comedy.




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