The Below Par Monthly Review of October 2021

As you attentive readers will no doubt already be aware, during October I posted my first new review for almost five months — whoop whoop! Only the one, though. Indeed, if you wanted to read new writing by me, you’d be better off attending FilmBath Festival and trying to guess which of the Film Notes handouts I completely rewrote (if they appear online this year, I’ll let you know and you can indulge in this fun game).

Yes, despite having a day job, I also served as Copy Editor for FilmBath once again — so at least this month I have an excuse for not writing anything here. It’s also the reason why this month’s viewing is way down, as you will now see…


#171 Appointment with Death (1988)
#172 Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021)
#173 Raffles (1939)
#174 A Little Chaos (2014)
#174a Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900)
#175 Capernaum (2018), aka Capharnaüm
#176 Dune: Part One (2021), aka Dune
#177 Sylvia Scarlett (1935)
#178 Going in Style (2017)
#179 Search for Danger (1949)
Dune: Part One
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  • I watched 9 feature films I’d never seen before in October.
  • It’s the first month in which I’ve fallen short of 10 films since December 2019.
  • That means last month concluded a 21-month 10+ streak — not even close to the longest (60 months, from June 2014 to May 2019), but well beyond the previous second best (just seven, from September 2009 to March 2010).
  • As for averages, obviously it brings everything down. The worst affected is the average for 2021 to date, which falls a whole film from 18.9 to 17.9. The rolling average of the last 12 months drops from 18.00 to 17.25, while October’s average shifts slightly from 13.21 to 13.54.
  • I should’ve saved Frankenstein to be this month’s Blindspot film (for hopefully-obvious reasons). As it was, I didn’t watch any of the remaining three, meaning I need to watch two next month. That’s okay: I also missed one in August and managed to catch it up in September, so I’ve got form.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched Everybody’s Talking About Jamie… twice (see Rewatchathon).



The 77th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
I liked a few films this month, but there’s no real debate that this belongs to Dune: Part One (as I was insisting on calling it even before the sequel was greenlit, a piece of good news that has only made me more insistent).

Least Favourite Film of the Month
The pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant should be a great one — it gave us the likes of Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, after all — but their first film together, Sylvia Scarlett, just doesn’t work, on the whole.

Worst Accent of the Month
Dick Van Dyke gets a lot of stick for his Cockney in Mary Poppins, but perhaps he just watched Cary Grant in Sylvia Scarlett for research. Yes, it is comparably poor… but that also means it has the same kind of perverse entertainment value.

Completed Film Series of the Month
Just over nine years since I watched the first one, I finally finished off The Falcon series of ’40s detective mysteries with Search for Danger. Well, it depends how you count it. Really, I think there are 13 films, ending with 1946’s The Falcon’s Adventure; but some say there are 16 films, bundling in the three made a few years later by a different studio with a different star. I’d argue those are more of a ‘reboot’ series than a true continuation. They’re also trickier to track down — while I saw the first 13 thanks to the BBC airing them, the later three most assuredly weren’t included — but I finally bothered to find them, and so now, whichever way you cut it, I’m done.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
For the first time in a while there were actually two new posts this month, although it wasn’t much of a battle — No Time to Die romped away with the victory, besting even my ever-popular old TV reviews to be the month’s most-viewed post overall. It’s already in the top five new posts for the entire year, too, although its chances of overtaking the most popular TV posts are slim.



So, I think it’s now pretty clear I’m not going to make my goal of 50 rewatches in 2021 — I’d need to watch ten a month to get there, which isn’t impossible (I normally watch more new films than that… though not this month, obviously), but I know I just won’t do that (I’ll focus on the unseen stuff). Ah well, it’s only a target. Maybe next year… or maybe next year I’ll have a new goal…

Anyway, this month’s sole rewatch was…

#30 Everybody’s Talking About Jamie (2021)

…which I’d only first seen earlier in the month! When I rewatched it I knew I’d only recently seen it, but I didn’t realise it was within the same month until afterwards. That had more to do with watching it with different people than rushing to rewatch it quickly. I do like it quite a bit, though.


Anyone would think the pandemic was over, the way cinemas are back in full flow (and doing fairly good business, based on my personal experience on the two trips I’ve made so far). Films hitting the big screen this past month that I’ve skipped ‘til disc or streaming include Ridley Scott’s acclaimed The Last Duel, Edgar Wright’s divisive Last Night in Soho, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, plus franchise sequels Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Halloween Kills, and The Addams Family 2. Also the sequel to The Boss Baby (I enjoyed the first one a surprising amount, so maybe I’ll make time for the sequel one day) and Dear Evan Hansen, which I’ll have to watch just to see how much of a train wreck it actually is.

Talking of the big screen, FilmBath Festival is currently mid-flow. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make any screenings this year, unfortunately, and films I’ve already missed include Mothering Sunday, Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman, Lamb, and Palme d’Or winner and French Oscar contender Titane.

The streamers continued to premiere new movies too, of course. Sky Cinema got UK exclusivity for sci-fi Voyagers (which suggests it’s not very good); Netflix had the English-language remake of thriller The Guilty (I watched the original back in February and it’s currently on All 4 again, FYI); MUBI had a Halloween premiere for BBFC-themed horror movie Censor (which I’ve heard good things about); and earlier in the month Amazon offered Bingo Hell (I like the sound of the concept, but I don’t think it’s been well reviewed). I guess Amazon’s big film was meant to be Infinite starring Mark Wahlberg, though I heard nothing about it until a big promo image popped up on Prime Video’s front page. Low marks on Letterboxd suggest it isn’t worth investigating.

Elsewhere on streaming, if I ever decide to embark on the Conjuring franchise, they’ve got me covered: the first two are on BBC iPlayer, while the third has arrived on Sky Cinema already (I’ve no idea about the spinoffs). Older titles bulking out my various watchlists included period lesbian drama Ammonite, Amsterdamned, David Cronenberg’s Fast Company, anime Mirai, and the 1990 Witches on Amazon Prime; Judas and the Black Messiah, The Little Things, Billie Piper’s Rare Beasts, and Nic Cage in Willy’s Wonderland on Sky Cinema; Halloween I to V (in particular, I want to see III), Honey Boy, Kung Fu Hustle, and Last Christmas on Netflix; The Arbor, The Love Witch, intriguing new animation Cryptozoo, and The Reluctant Fundamentalist on MUBI; and, on iPlayer, Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk, Daniel Craig and Anne Reid in The Mother, Horrible Histories: The Movie, and one I’d never heard of before: A Woman’s Secret, which is apparently a noir-style melodrama starring Gloria Grahame. Whew.

Of course, that’s as nothing to my ever-growing pile of new purchases. Where to begin? How about my latest 4K acquisitions: M. Night Shyamalan’s newest, Old, and his best, Unbreakable; Second Sight’s luxurious new edition of The Guest (which you may remember was my sort-of-joint-first favourite film of 2015); StudioCanal’s latest swish 4K box set, for Joe Dante’s The Howling; plus Arrow’s edition of Oldboy, and The Shining, which features the longer US cut that I’ve not seen. New or recent releases in good ol’ 1080p included Another Round, Masters of Cinema’s second volume of Early Universal silents, Eureka’s release of the Sabata trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, and Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers. I also finally got hold of Shout’s release of David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, and another Eureka release of a Spaghetti Western, Sergio Corbucci’s The Specialists.

And to round things off, I tried to limit my purchases in Arrow’s Shocktober sale… and failed spectacularly. Some of them were recent-ish titles (Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, still available as a multi-disc special edition, and Japanese corporate thriller Giants and Toys), and some they released so long ago they’re dual-format editions with DVDs (remember those?), like 52 Pick-Up and Howling II (which for some reason doesn’t feature its fab subtitle on the cover: Your Sister is a Werewolf). Rounding things out: more Japanese crime in Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards!; another Spaghetti Western, The Grand Duel; a couple of gialli (The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion and The Pyjama Girl Case); and, released by Second Run but in Arrow’s sale, one of Letterboxd’s 250 greatest films of all time, The Shop on the High Street. Whew, again.


2021’s on the home stretch now — perhaps it’s time to start thinking about where my final tally will end up…

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)

2018 #228
Frank Pavich | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | France & USA / English, French, German & Spanish | 12A / PG-13

Jodorowsky's Dune

In 1974, director Alejandro Jodorowsky was hot off a pair of psychedelic projects — “acid Western” El Topo and surrealist fantasy The Holy Mountain — that had brought some cult attention and success (El Topo was the original “midnight movie”, while The Holy Mountain was apparently second only to that year’s Bond film at the Italian box office). Consequently, his French distributor, Michel Seydoux, offered to produce whatever he wanted to do next. Jodorowsky’s answer was Dune. He’d never read it, but he had a friend who said it was fantastic.

So begins the crazy story of how a director of surrealist Mexican art-films came this close to making an epic space opera out of one of the most acclaimed science-fiction novels ever written, but, in his failure, accidentally helped give birth to Star Wars (sort of), Alien (indirectly), and possibly the entire history of screen science-fiction that did actually get made in the ensuing 40 years. Sounds like a bit of a stretch? Um, well, yeah… but that doesn’t stop some of this documentary’s contributors from asserting it, and they do kind of have evidence.

Mind you, Jodorowsky’s Dune is full of interviewees making grand assertions, not least the eponymous filmmaker himself. He unironically describes his Dune as “the most important picture in the history of humanity”. He pitches himself as a prophet, thinks of his crew as spiritual warriors, and is convinced the film was going to be a great message for humanity; that it would literally change the world. The lack of self-awareness when he considers Douglas Trumbull to be full of his own importance is palpable. Jodorowsky’s regard for himself and the project may seem deluded, but at least he was committed. They spent two-and-a-half years developing this movie, including storyboarding every shot and getting exactly the right kind of people for the cast and crew — he pursued Dalí literally around the world to persuade him to play the Emperor; he rejected Trumbull, not because of an ego clash, but because he felt he was a technician rather than a spiritual person. He’s a bit barmy, but Jodorowsky definitely believed what he was doing was some grand transcendent enterprise.

A Chris Foss spaceship design for Dune

Such an attitude might get you far with arty types, but it doesn’t wash with the moneymen of Hollywood. The film had a projected budget of $15 million, and they went to the Hollywood studios seeking the last $5 million. In hand they had a giant tome containing all the storyboards, the costume and production designs, and so on. The book convinced them — it was well planned out and reasonably costed — but this barmy director — whose only previous films were weird psychedelic experiences; whose response to “make it under two hours” was, “why? If it needs be, it’ll be 12 hours, or 20!” — he didn’t fill them with confidence. And so they didn’t get the money, and the film fell through. Well, duh. Surely they could see how that was going to go? Maybe people just weren’t as savvy in the ’70s, especially these optimistic, committed artists.

All the documentary’s interviewees act like this was a problem with Hollywood moneymen having no vision, but c’mon, it’s easy to see where they were coming from. Plus, the fact that “the book convinced them” is just the word of Seydoux. Maybe Jodorowsky’s history and attitude was just a convenient excuse, because a lot of the stuff that was designed and planned is quite out there, especially to the mind of a ’70s Hollywood suit. It brings us back to how everyone’s making grand assertions: they all acts like the film was going to be an unquestionable masterpiece, but it seems to me there’s a much higher chance it would’ve been terrible. For one thing, there’s doubt over if they even could have made it. It was an insanely ambitious project, with plans to do things George Lucas wouldn’t even attempt in the prequel trilogy, never mind what he struggled to get done in 1977. But there’s a first time for everything — 2001 still holds up, after all, and that was made seven years earlier. Still, I don’t know how successful Jodorowsky’s surrealist mindset would’ve made it as a movie — it probably would’ve been even less palatable to a mainstream audience than the Lynch version.

Dune storyboards

That said, there seems little doubt Jodorowsky was ahead of his time here. For starters, the idea of making a 12-hour film isn’t so ludicrous anymore. In the deleted scenes (there’s a hefty 46 minutes of them on the Blu-ray), he acknowledges people wouldn’t sit through that, saying he was prepared to release it in chunks if necessary — so, just like Lord of the Rings would do to huge success 25 years later? Jump forward another 20 years, and it’s even how they’re doing Dune, in two parts! Of course, it was unprecedented in 1975; and, decades later, Rings was still seen as a gamble, but it paid off and Hollywood is now littered with franchises where instalments connect up as closely as TV series. And what of TV series, where you’re also seeing 12-hour (or longer) single narratives.

Aside from general questions of form, when you look at some of Dune‘s storyboards and plans you can see mirrors to stuff that wouldn’t be done until later. This is where the claim that Jodorowsky’s work on Dune led to Star Wars, Alien, et al, comes from, because you can see parallels between what he did and what would come after. His film was never made, but they produced 20 copies of that book I mentioned, and only two are known to exists (one with Jodorowsky, one with Seydoux). The rest were left with Hollywood studios. Were they passed around behind-the-scenes? Did the likes of Lucas and Spielberg and Ridley Scott and Mike Hodges and James Cameron really see them and pilfer ideas? Or is it just coincidence — Jodorowsky thought of them first but couldn’t execute them, then others thought of them independently and pulled it off. Pick your own side.

However, the claim that Dune led almost directly to Alien is less dubious. After he rejected Trumbull, Jodorowsky saw John Carpenter’s Dark Star and was impressed enough to hunt down its visual effects guy, Dan O’Bannon. Concept artists he hired included Chris Foss (painter of sci-fi book covers, mainly spaceships); Moebius (French comic book artist, for costume designs and storyboards); and H.R. Giger (German artist, who designed the dark and twisted world of the film’s villains). Those who know their Alien history might recognise all of those names: after Dune fell through, O’Bannon went on to write Alien, and all three of those designers followed on to the project. Maybe Alien would have come together just as well without the lead-in from Dune, we’ll never know, but those connections are pretty striking.

Giger at work on Dune

Lest you feel bad for everyone just ripping Jodorowsky off, he was able to recycle some of the ideas himself. His vision for Dune was only broadly faithful (one of the better deleted scenes is about his attitude to adaptation, which it seems Frank Herbert agreed with; i.e. that it’s not about being faithful, but reimagining something as a new, different work of art), and so he had plenty of fresh ideas that, presumably, weren’t tied up in the rights to Dune. Jodorowsky and Moebius piled some of these directly into later comic book collaborations, like The Incal and The Metabarons. A good idea never dies, I guess. Well, whether they were good ideas or just good in Jodorowsky’s mind, I don’t know. It does make me interested to read those books, though.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is an interesting “what if” in the history of science-fiction cinema, and this documentary does a good job of being a making-of for a movie that was never made. (If you think this review reads like I’ve just regurgitated the entire story, I promise, there’s a lot more in the film; not to mention the unique benefits of hearing it from the horses’ mouths, rather than my abridgement for the sake of appending my own opinions.) Some critics assert the documentary does more than just recount interesting anecdotes; that it offers some kind of transcendent viewpoint about the creation of art. Maybe if you’re of a similarly spiritual disposition to Jodorowsky himself, that’s what you’ll take from it. For me, it’s most interesting as a window into what might have been. If it had been made, would Jodorowsky’s Dune occupy the place of Star Wars in our culture? Its devotees think so. I don’t, to be honest. But it’s fun to think about.

4 out of 5

The trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Dune will be released later today.