Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (2014) and STAGE FRIGHT (2014)

(France/US - 2014)

Legendary Chilean cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky has been best-known for his surrealistic midnight movie classics EL TOPO (1970) and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN (1973), as well as his 1989 masterpiece SANTA SANGRE.  Now, however, at the age of 84, he's gotten the most attention of his career for a film he didn't make, an abandoned adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic 1965 sci-fi novel Dune. Jodorowsky and French producer Michel Seydoux began putting their DUNE together over 1974-75, with the director given carte blanche by the producer with a then-enormous $15 million budget. Jodorowsky's ambitions for the project almost went beyond what cinema of the time deemed capable--he wanted the film to resemble an acid trip without actually dropping acid--and he began to assemble a team of what he called "spiritual warriors" with the ability to pull it off. He commissioned artists like H.R. Giger, Jean Giraud (aka "Moebius"), and Chris Foss to design elaborate storyboards compiled in a tome thicker than a phone book, copies of which were eventually shipped to Hollywood studios.  Jodorowsky got Pink Floyd and French prog band Magma to compose the music, and DARK STAR's Dan O'Bannon to design the special effects after declaring 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY's Douglas Trumbull too "technical" and not spiritual enough. He secured what would've been a once-in-a-lifetime cast including Salvador Dali as the Emperor, Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen, David Carradine as Duke Leto, Jodorowsky's son Brontis as Duke's son Paul Atreides, Mick Jagger as Feyd Rautha, plus Udo Kier, Dali muse Amanda Lear, and Gloria Swanson. With the script, crew, and cast already locked down, Jodorowsky and Seydoux sought $5 million in additional financing from a Hollywood studio and the project--and Jodorowsky's dream--promptly collapsed. Studio execs balked at the extent of the filmmaker's vision and the lack of commercial appeal. The studios liked the storyboards but felt Jodorowsky, based on his sales pitch and his past films, was too "out there" and too unwilling to compromise. They wanted a 90-minute sci-fi movie, where Jodorowsky's script, if shot as it was, would've led to a film running at least 12 hours. With Jodorowsky and Seydoux unable to obtain further funding to construct the sets and begin filming, their DUNE was cancelled in pre-production, and the two men parted ways.

Documentary director Frank Pavich ultimately presents JODOROWSKY'S DUNE as a classic "art vs. commerce" scenario, with the gregarious but obsessive Jodorowsky committed to the DUNE he wanted to make and not really interested in how much money it would cost or lose. Only when the subject of money comes up does Jodorowsky demonstrate any bitterness and resentment, grabbing a wad of cash out of his pocket and bemoaning that "it's just paper...it has no soul."  Of course, DUNE was eventually made by David Lynch for Dino De Laurenttis in 1984, and though Jodorowsky says he admires Lynch greatly, he was happy that he found the Lynch film "terrible." Jodorowsky's DUNE exists only as an epic storyboard book, and Pavich, via animation, plays out a number of the sequences in a film that never was. What's very intriguing is how much imagery and ideas in these storyboards ended up in other movies: O'Bannon, Giger, and Foss all worked on ALIEN (1979), and the influence in some of the designs, even in the much later ALIEN-related PROMETHEUS (2012) is obvious when you see the work they did for Jodorowsky. DRIVE director Nicolas Winding Refn states "His DUNE never got made, but its fingerprints are all over other movies that came after. If he made DUNE, history is changed. You wouldn't have ALIEN, and without that, you wouldn't have BLADE RUNNER or THE MATRIX," adding that the Hollywood studios were "afraid" of Jodorowsky and how his DUNE would've changed everything. Jodorowsky's storyboards circulated around Hollywood for years and Pavich shows that designs and artwork in them are apparent in numerous future films from that time, from STAR WARS (1977) to FLASH GORDON (1980) to THE TERMINATOR (1984), and the later CONTACT (1997). Pavich lets Jodorowsky speak at length and the film is just as much about his failed, would-be game-changer as it is his dedication to his art itself, which he conveys without ever coming off as pompous or pretentious, often telling great stories like one where he gets a firm commitment Welles by promising to hire his favorite chef to prepare his meals daily (some of the filmmaker's stories sound a little suspect, especially in the way he never seems to know how to contact the people he wants but instead keeps happening to bump into them somewhere in Paris). JODOROWSKY'S DUNE is a fascinating film that contemplates just how much film history might've been altered if Hollywood was willing to take a chance on one man's impossibly audacious and quite possibly lunatic vision. (PG-13, 90 mins)

(Canada/US - 2014)

This blood-splattered horror musical gets off to a solid start with a very Dario Argento/OPERA-esque prologue and a legitimately inspired opening credits production number before rapidly exhausting every bit of its gimmick. Films like Brian De Palma's classic PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974) and SAW II, III, and IV director Darren Lynn Bousman's more recent REPO: THE GENETIC OPERA (2008) have done the horror musical thing in a stronger fashion in the past, and regardless of how you felt about REPO, at least it was sincere and stuck to its convictions, right down to the casting of Sarah Brightman in a key role. STAGE FRIGHT can't decide if it wants to be a legitimate musical or one that's ironically bad-on-purpose, with a killer who uses a butcher knife as a capo before a shredding guitar solo as he shrieks like a laryngitic Rob Halford-by-way-of-Axl Rose while offing his victims. The novelty wears off quickly, though writer/director Jerome Sable does a nice job with some of the outrageously gory giallo-derived killings. Teenager Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and her twin brother Buddy (Douglas Smith) work in the kitchen at Center Stage, a summer performing arts camp for kids run by the manager (Meat Loaf) of their late mother Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver), a beloved stage star brutally murdered ten years earlier by a masked killer in the opening sequence. This summer's Center Stage production is the musical The Haunting of the Opera, which, of course, was Kylie's last production. Camilla tries out for the lead role to honor the memory of her mom, and naturally gets the part, and before long, the same masked killer--looking like a refugee from the EYES WIDE SHUT orgy--starts murdering those behind the production one by one.  STAGE FRIGHT sometimes resembles an old-school '80s splatterfest and would probably function better as such, but after the opening credits (done in the John Carpenter font), the musical numbers do nothing but slow things down, making this fairly short film seem much longer than it is. Some of the killings are imaginative, and MacDonald is an appealing final girl, but the killer's identity and an accompanying twist are both obvious. A passable time-killer, but if you feel the need to watch a slasher film titled STAGE FRIGHT, where members of a theater troupe are dispatched one-by-one, you're better off checking out Argento protege Michele Soavi's identically-titled 1987 cult classic again instead. (R, 88 mins)

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