9/12/14

The Movie Labor Day Will Make You Want to Go to Work

LABOR DAY (2013)
Directed by Jason Reitman
Paramount, 111 minutes, PG-13
*

I'm such a public servant that I waited until after Labor Day to inflict this bologna sandwich of a film upon you. Nobody should ruin a holiday weekend by watching this piece of detritus. In fact, you should avoid it even a slow Tuesday. This is a very bad movie–one that's too pretentious to be camp and too inept to be considered much of anything else.

Its hook–more like a windup right cross you see coming from a mile away–is an unlikely (impossible?) triad between escaped convict Frank (Josh Brolin); a psychologically damaged divorcee, Adele (Kate Winslet); and her obedient 13-year-old son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) who, like all thirteen-year-olds, just wants his mom to be happy. (Do 13-year-olds even admit that they have parents?) The film is set in 1987, a date apparently pulled from a hat. A chance encounter inside a discount store between Frank and Henry leads to a family napping. (What? Nobody thought of screaming for help in a crowded store?) The wounded Frank begs Adele and Henry to let him hole up for a few days until he's strong enough to flee. He's very polite, charming, a great cook, and hunky so, of course, they trust him. I mean, who wouldn't feel secure around a convicted murderer with Josh Brolin's eyes? Within 24 hours, Henry is smitten, Adele is aroused, and everyone is free to come and go without restraint. Because it's a holiday weekend and no trains that Frank can hop are running on the local tracks, the three are stuck with each other for five days. (Odd. I thought there were usually extra trains over holidays. Nor did I realize that everything shut down for five days because of Labor Day. I also thought long weekends were three days long.) A new family unit emerges before our eyes, the only inconvenience being that police cars keep patrolling the neighborhood in search of Frank. That could happen, right?

Is your credulity stretched yet? Wait for it. Adele's neuroses are so severe that her house is falling apart, so Frank spends his days fixing up the old homestead. In addition to being a great cook he's also a mason, a carpenter, a floor washer, a plumber, and pretty handy at fixing shingles. The guy who is too weak to go on the lam lifts rocks, swings a mean hammer, and spends a lot of time outside on a ladder, the roof, and the porch–despite all those police cars and a street full of neighbors. There's a lame explanation for all of this. If you buy it, you'll probably also believe that women fall in love when a man makes a peach pie. Yes, peach pie is also a plot device–device being the key word. This film has it all–nosy neighbors, a too-helpful local cop, a Goth girl interested in Henry, a weak-kneed biological father, flash-backs that explain how Frank ended up in jail, a flash forward to an adult Henry (Tobey Maguire in a cameo), and even an implausible attempt to run away as a family to Prince Edward Island. Why Prince Edward Island? Why not? It makes about as much sense as anything else in a film riddled with gaffes, clich├ęs, and more holes than a tweed jacket at a moth picnic.

This film even managed to tick me off on a personal level. Much of it was filmed in nearby Shelburne Falls. For reasons that have to do with offering tax avoidance candy to filmmakers, Western Massachusetts is occasionally a location site. Aside from part of The Ciderhouse Rules (1999) though, nobody has made a watchable film emanating from this region since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Labor Day made me want to march on Boston and demand a rebate on my taxes. –Rob Weir


9/8/14

Jodorowsky's Dune: Art or Insanity?

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JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (2014)
Directed by Frank Pavich
Sony Classics, 90 minutes, PG-13
* * * *

The poet Arthur Rimbaud is credited with the line "There is a thin line between insanity and genius. I have erased this line." Frank Herbert's 1975 novel Dune is one of the most beloved science-fiction works of the 20th-century. Long before "Star Wars," Herbert created intergalactic cultures and conflicts that involved fictive leaps of imagination that veered beyond normal ways of seeing and thinking. The planet Dune was a waterless terrain inhabited by giant sand worms. Humanoid life depended upon still suits to recycle bodily fluids and sustain life. Herbert's sprawling book was not the easiest read, but it was certainly a fascinating one. It hit the market just as just as the psychedelic 60s had crested. In many ways, reading Herbert was like an LSD trip in words. Filmmaker, artist, playwright, and musician Alejandro Jodorowsky certainly thought so.

Jodorowsky was born in Chile in 1929 and was never what anyone would call a normal child.  From an early age, Jodorowsy demonstrated a penchant for mysticism, spiritualism, and surrealism. In fact, he was among the last generation of Surrealists. It was hardly surprising that Jodorowsky, by then in his 40s, was attracted to the offbeat, swirling, tie-dyed weirdness of the 60s. He made several films that made Andy Warhol seem pedestrian. The closest thing to him today would be Terry Gilliam, but Gilliam seems a Boy Scout by comparison. Also not surprising, not many movie viewers had the slightest idea what was going on in Jodorowsky's films. Who better to tackle Frank Herbert's Dune?

Your first response might be: just about anyone else! As Frank Pavich's fascinating documentary suggests, however, maybe Jodorowsky was exactly the man for the task. Or maybe not. His Dune never got made, though it had everything except rolling cameras. We are taken inside Jodorowsky's exceedingly weird and wildly creative mind. His ideas were so adventurous that they often bore little resemblance to reality. Who would listen to such an offbeat character? For starters, some of the finest film set and storyboard designers of the day: Dan O'Bannon, Moebius, H. R. Giger, Chris Foss…  And it got better. Pink Floyd was interested in doing the soundtrack, Orson Welles had agreed to be in the film, and none other than Salvador Dali had agreed to appear as the Master of the Universe. The collaboration between unorthodox minds yielded a gorgeous artifact: a massive perfect-bound tome of all of the storyboards, dialogue, and narrative arc necessary to bring Dune to life. It was sent out to myriad producers and potential backers. Just one problem: convincing Hollywood players that Jodorowsky was the man to make this film. They thought he was nuts. You know the rest–in 1984, David Lynch directed Dune. It was one of the worst bombs in Hollywood history.

Pavich raises the question of what would have happened if Jodorowsky had made Dune. Would it have been a Terry Gilliamesque train wreck, or art for the ages? Of course, it would not have been hard to make a better film than Lynch's, but the documentary is appropriately ambiguous as to whether Jodorowsky's vision was simply ahead of its time, or one unlikely to exist in any time. The documentary is infinitely more interesting than Lynch's movie––including interviews with those were still around to comment upon Jodorowsky's filmic vision, including Jodorowsky himself who is just as odd now as he was 30 years ago. It probably would not surprise you that others render a split decision between insanity and genius.

The question of whether not such vision can find any niche is actually answered. At age 85, Jodorowsky has found an outlet for intergalactic musings and other out-of-this-world thinking–he produces graphic novels. You should watch this documentary even if you have never read Frank Herbert's novel. From time to time I see bumper stickers with the probing question "Why be normal?" Alejandro Jodorowsky has spent his life erasing the line between sanity and genius. Watching this film may give you permission to do the same.—Rob Weir