Archive for April, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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I put off seeing this movie for 2 reasons: I wasn’t sure I was ready to see Heath Ledger’s last movie, having taken his spectacular performance in The Dark Knight a little hard, and the popular reviews had not been very good.

I think all those reviewers who panned this movie have never seen a Terry Gilliam film in their collected lives, because I fucking loved this flick. If you don’t like Gilliam’s other movies, if you find them weird and creepy and pointless, well…I got nothin’ for ya. Why would you even go see this, then? If you find Terry Gilliam’s stuff magical and exhilarating and delightful and a bit scary, then strap in!

All the Gilliam signatures are there: expansive and inventive fantasy backdrops, wide-eyed innocents with smart mouths, grand decaying costumes, villains simultaneously charming and terrifying, twists that you don’t realize are there until they’ve long passed, creepy delightful music, and little people! If you try to nail the movie down before it’s finished, you’ll get confused and annoyed when things don’t seem to be making sense; he’s testing your assumptions and subconscious bias. If you enjoy the ride and accept what you’re shown, it all flows quite beautifully through to the end.

I had read that Gilliam rewrote the script to have Ledger’s part played by THREE different actors, and worried that it would seem contrived or awkward. In fact, it plays out so seamlessly that I can’t imagine how not doing so wouldn’t have detracted from the movie. I also never realized how much Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all look remarkably similar to Heath Ledger (besides all being criminally beautiful). The 3 substitutes clearly studied Ledger’s footage, and each one so fully emulated him that my suspension of disbelief was complete.

Lily Cole is quite compelling, especially for a young lady who’s most known as a model. Andrew Garfield is a young English actor I’ve not heard much of before, but is persuasively and scruffily adorable. Christopher Plummer is nuanced and powerful (and seems to me to be the future Gilliam himself). Tom Waits blows my mind for the second time this week (see The Book Of Eli), and takes so much visible delight in his role that I reflexively smiled every time he was onscreen (which considering his character’s nature, should bode very poorly for me). Verne Troyer, as the requisite little person, struggles mightily and ultimately cannot fully grasp the material, but I sort of feel like he should be rewarded for trying so hard at “real” acting. That said, there are so many extremely talented short-statured actors out there, maybe they could have cast someone more in line with the role than someone who’s already a minor star.

The true hallmark of a Terry Gilliam film for me is that moment when I’m going along, happily absorbing the fantastical pageant unfolding around me, and he hits me with some frightening image that has me sleeping with the light on for a week, then skips right on to something beautiful or silly like nothing happened and I didn’t just wet my pants in terror. I’m thinking of, say, the scary swollen baby-head masks in Brazil, or the bone-littered cages over oblivion in Time Bandits; deeply transgressive snapshots that go beyond “fucked-up shit”. Only for a moment, just enough to give me a heart attack, then sweeping around the bend back to delight, there there, it’s alright now. This movie did not actually have a moment like that for me (perhaps because I’m not really afraid of heights), which just made it all the sweeter for me.

The Book Of Eli

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I must admit off the top that I am a sucker for post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies – even better if it’s a nasty, dark future of the sort where everyone is constantly filthy and society degrades to a lawless, violent wasteland (clearly also why I realize I like westerns). I think it all goes back to seeing Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome at a formative point in my preteen development, but I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that I will cut certain types of movies slack if they faithfully aim for my pet genres. Vice versa, I fully own up to be extra-critical of, say, weepy chick flicks (fuck you very much in the ear, StepMom).

The shattered society post-apocalypse movie I dislike has yet to be made, as far as I know, and The Book Of Eli is no exception. It plays a lot like a graphic novel/comic adaptation, but isn’t (which is a different sign of the apocalypse to meditate upon). Most of the shots and action sequences are framed like a comic panel, which has good and bad points that for me tend to even out. The story is simple and spare, and this case that’s a very good thing. The simplicity of the plot also convinced me that it must be based on a comic, but there was a subtle feeling that the story was about to tangle its feet in plot details (but never quite did).

The cast is awesome across the board; you really cannot go wrong with Gary Oldman. I had actually forgotten that Oldman was in this movie, so when he appearedĀ  I gesticulated wildly at the screen like I had just won Silent Retard Bingo. I’m sayin’ I really dig Gary Oldman, is what I’m sayin’. As an aside, I once read an article where The Fabulous Oldman expressed bemused shock at his sex symbol status because he says he’s looks like a bald chicken naked. Which of course I think of every time I see Gary Oldman, which means every single time I see him, I think of him naked! Well played, Oldman.

Naked chicken or not, he never phones it in – Gary Oldman is still in fine form. Denzel Washington has fallen out of my favor in recent years, and he can have a tendency to either exist onscreen in body but not in mind or chew the scenery, but here he’s restrained and thoughtful. Maybe I’m giving him too much credit, but he seems to resist the urge to over-emotionalize his character or impart too much depth or gravitas (which would push the entire story firmly into hokey territory). There are aspects of Eli that I initially found faintly unbelievable, but in some subtle way the movie eventually addressed each one to my satisfaction. Mila Kunis is a tiny, beautiful creature that is somehow inhabited by a loud, adorably awkward yet relaxed 8th grader. She does very well here until the denouement – she just isn’t quite able to carry off the dynamic changes her character makes, although that isn’t until the very last minutes of the movie so I’ll give her a pass. The cameos are unexpectedly delicious – Tom Waits, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon, and Frances De La TourĀ  all pop in for terrific character bits.

The climax involves a twist, which I do love if it’s done well and I don’t see it coming, and this one is quite successful. I enjoy that moment in a movie, after the twist is revealed, where you mentally rewind the movie and play it back at high speed to check for inconsistencies – if you don’t immediately find any in your split-second review, it’s such a satisfying feeling!

All told, I very much enjoyed this movie, but have to say it isn’t very accessible to people who aren’t already hooked on the genre. I expect a certain tone and approach to characters when I see someone shoot a housecat for food with a crossbow while wearing a gasmask in a burned-out landscape, and that’s a positive association for me that I realize the average movie-goer may not have.

*by the way, totally not kidding about the housecat and the crossbow. What the fuck? That whole scene is just so ridiculous and self-consciously arty, most of all because it’s a hairless cat, which ignited my pedantic inner 4th-grader (hairless cats would be the first to go! they have allergies and retain their body heat poorly! not to mention being expensive and therefore pampered cats that I strongly believe would have little in the way of outdoor survival or hunting skills).