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The Cheap and The Dead: 7 Films to Watch This Week

Artist Chris Foss' rendering of one of the vehicles for Alexandro Jodorowsky's never produced take on Frank Herbert's Dune. Courtesy of duneinfo.com.

Alejandro Jodorowsky's adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic "Dune" –  a book which the cult director still to this day has not read – might have been the pinnacle of his career, had it ever been made. Instead, what we get is Frank Pavich's doc Jodorowsky's Dune, a loving exploration of the director's lapsed dream grounded by the man himself, part prophet, part trickster and always first in line to stoke his own legend. There's some indication that the failure could have damaged a man less than Jodorowsky – who returned to the form after a 23 year absence this year following his reunion with producer Michael Seydoux – was it not already known that he left other scraps on the table. David Lynch (of that other Dune) was signed on to produce King Shot, a "metaphysical gangster film" featuring Marilyn Manson, and Abel Cain, a sequel to his debut El Topo, also languishes in limbo to this day, but never gets mentioned in Pavich's doc, which has plenty to unspool in its subject alone.

For the majority of the runtime, the still-spry 84-year old proves a magnetic presence as he details gathering a team of "spiritual warriors" to create what he considered his ultimate work of transcendence. Among them were French comic legend Moebius, artist H.R. Giger (working for the first time in the medium), SFX Wizard Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star), Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd, and even Orson Welles – secured with the promise of his own personal chef. The zen charm of Jodo (as he's called by friends) and his storytelling flair makes such an undertaking seem as simple as "getting the band back together," but ultimately even his charisma proves insufficient to overcome the reservations of a Hollywood system already reticent to take a long bet. 

The second great light of Pavitch's doc is Dune's production book, stills from which provide a great deal of the film's visuals. A daunting artifact, the legendarily gorgeous text, which details Jodorowsky's vision down to the last storyboard, made the rounds to nearly every studio in town. In effect, it is Dune – at least as much as any film that could have been completed. The doc's final moments run down the echoes of its influence over the last 30 years and I'll save those revelations for Pavich, but it suffices to say that a modern-day filming of Dune no longer seems sensible: Jodorowsky may have released the wheel but many fellow travellers still rock in his wake. Embarcadero Cinemas. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

ALSO PLAYING:

Cheap Thrills  - If there's a more potent contemporary allegory for the plight of the 99 percent than E. L. Katz's debut Cheap Thrills, I don't know what it is. Disguised as your typical genre fare, Cheap Thrills begins in form with family man Craig (the chameleonic Pat Healy), a down-on-his-writer, having a particularly bad go of things: he has no money, he's getting evicted, and he just lost his job. When he stops by the bar to drown his sorrows, he runs into his old buddy Vince and an impromptu bar-side reunion turns into a competition after a bored wife and her jocular husband (David Koechner) call them over and pose a series of dares – with an escalating cash reward for each one. Later, back at their house, the game escalates at a toxic rate and the (literal) knives come out, setting Craig and Vince up against one another as they vie for cash. 

Though the film's believability rests ably on Healy's pathetic family man, it's great to see habitual goofball David Koechner play to a different role here as the mephistophelean quiz master, using his size to effect and trading his goofy tics for an air of menace that starts funny but ends just short of terrifying. At the end of Cheap Thrills you might still be laughing, but you can tell this one's going to hurt. Roxie. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%

Noah - Darren Aronofsky's box office success with Black Swan (which grossed over 300 million worldwide) guaranteed him a great deal of leeway with his next picture, and he appears to have taken advantage of all of it to film this biblical epic. Rather than towing the line between reverence and agenda, he obliterates it, making Noah a spectacle to behold, and consider. Bay Area Theaters. Rotten Tomatoes: 76%.

Ernest & Célestine - This French animation about a busking bear and his mouse-y pal (based on a well-loved kids' book of the same name) limns the terrain of whimsical majesty flown by David Bowie-voiced Christmas classic The Snowman. The results should appeal to all ages. Embarcadero Cinemas. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%.

"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"* But Were Afraid to Ask - Woody Allen's 1972 comedy, an extremely loose adaptation of Dr. David Ruben's taboo-smashing sexual revolution handbook of the same name, finds the recently depressive director in full manic mode, and loving it. A treat, played on 35mm. Friday only, Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%.

Erotic Oddities - There must be something in the air this Friday as Oddball also showcases erotic material of a different vintage – "From insane pornographic cartoons to marionette strippers, experimental sex to bizarre stag films" by their own admission. Friday only. Oddball Film + Video. 

Cesar Chavez - Michael Peña gets a well-deserved starring role in this passion project from actor/director Diego Luna (Y Tu Mama Tambien). The portrayal of the labor leader's life is accurate, and undoubtedly a necessary addition to the biopic canon, but the execution may leave some wanting. Bay Area Theatres, Rotten Tomatoes: 46%.