Archive for The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

The Vomitorium of Dr Narcissus

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by dcairns

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As a Gilliamite of yore, I was of course looking forward to THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS, despite snooty reviews in the British press (who complained that BRAZIL “lacked originality”) and despite the calamity of star Heath Ledger’s death. I like Gilliam and I like what he does, the only serious exception being THE BROTHERS GRIMM, where the constant tampering of the Weinstein Brothers grimmer could be blamed for much of the film’s tired and witless drag.

Having found a radical solution to his star’s death — replacing Ledger, when he goes through the magic mirror, with three other A-list stars — Gilliam seemed to have once more completed a film more or less the way he wanted it completed, which is the way it should be. The trouble is… or the trouble seems to be… that Gilliam needs a stronger script collaborator to funnel his gushing mind towards some desirable destination. Writing with actor Charles McKeown, who collaborated on BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN, Gilliam has an old friend to back him up. But perhaps its significant that BRAZIL also benefited from the dramaturgical prowess of Tom Stoppard, a man who knows a thing about structure, and MUNCHAUSEN, though far more shapeless (agreeably so, for the most part) did have the original tales to fall back on.

In DR PARNASSUS we get pretty much undiluted Gilliam creation, spilling out over the screen as if he simply unlocked his forehead and a stream of molten imagination came spewing out of his brainhole, bathing us all in its steaming ichor. As delightful as that sounds, the effect is self-nullifying because there’s no base of story to support it. There’s not even a coherent premise. Nor is there a structure, a main character (and this has nothing to do with Ledger’s demise), a theme, message, internal logic or valid satiric angle. It’s soup.

[Parnassus sends unsuspecting members of the public into a world he creates with his mind, where they have to make mysterious choices, resulting in either salvation (of some unspecified kind) or damnation (literal death and falling into the hands of the Devil). This makes Parnassus not a so terribly nice guy, in my book. But the victims of his show are one-dimensional class stereotypes, proles and toffs, and we’re not encouraged to give two shits about them. And the mysterious choices made in this airless green-screen world make no sense to me: a bunch of Russian gangsters are damned for wanting to be with their mother in the Old Country. The desire for a one-night stand with Johnny Depp is considered worthy of damnation. Hell with that.]

Much of the imagery is gorgeous, and there’s a lot of it. I loved the monastery where Parnassus first meets the Devil — an impossibly sculptural Himalayan folly full of levitating monks — and the film’s use of London as backdrop is often beautiful It’s been an age since I’ve seen a London-set film which showcased it’s locations as if they were interesting (most London-based filmmakers are bored of London and bored of film — Gilliam, whatever his vices, is not). But the only times the film felt like it had any control over its own effects was (1) the Johnny Depp cameo — Depp just makes things focus, he reduces every other element to scene-setting, and blasts the clutter away — and (2) a sequence when the imaginary world of a charity ball / awards ceremony starts to break apart: the sudden rifts of black space provide abrupt and truly welcome relief from the mass of meaningless detail that’s been fighting for our attention.

It’s tempting to simply assume that the star’s death threw the project off course, and that’s certainly a possibility — it must have been an awful thing to face. But Ledger was never at the centre of the story, unless some massive rewriting has gone on. There’s no centre. Parnassus seems like he should be the key character, since he at least has a goal — saving his daughter from the devil. But he spends much of the action in a trance, drunk, or narrating unnecessary flashbacks. The excess screen time is scooped up by Ledger, who may in fact be the villain, and by young Andrew Garfield (clearly talented but trying too hard). Ledger is called Tony and Garfield plays Anton, which suggests some kind of duality or connection, but none emerges.

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We also have Lily Cole, an unusually structured supermodel with an apple for a head — she’s unquestionably beautiful, and gives a creditable performance, but it’s not in synch with anyone else’s. Plummer bellows and drools like Lear, Garfield is tricks and tics, and Verne Troyer delivers his lines by rote, or from the world’s smallest autocue.** Gilliam has often thrown together unlikely combinations of British and American talent (plus the occasional Italian or Australian), but this time the sense of a troupe just isn’t there. Amid all the shouting and showing off, Cole’s more muted work is very welcome.

Maybe this will play better a second time around? TIME BANDITS improved for me on reviewing, as did MUNCHAUSEN and JABBERWOCKY. But my favourites, BRAZIL and TWELVE MONKEYS, were immediately successful on pretty much every level. I haven’t seen anything this bad from Gilliam since THE BROTHERS GRIMM, where at least he had the excuse of appalling executive interference. But that misbegotten project shares with this one a glaring flaw that has nothing to do with budgetary limitations or studio supervision or behind-the-scenes tragedy: very poor dialogue.

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I do think perhaps the film was more unfinished at the time of Ledger’s death than has been suggested. The movie takes ages to get going, with endless digressions into flashback and introductions of unnecessary subplots. The strange symbols written on Ledger’s forehead are never explained. I’m reminded of the John Landis episode of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, where what seems like a botched bit of writing is simply the result of a patch-up job on the available footage shot before the star’s death. In both cases, what might have made a moving and evocative fragment (Do I perhaps love fragments more than I love complete films?) has become a dead and disjointed “completed work,” made not for audiences but for the insurers.

*I’ve heard that Troyer has a bodyguard, who is also a little person. But an incredibly muscular one. I love this.

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Excelsior!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2009 by dcairns

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UP is a blast. One of the pleasing things about David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s excellent blog is their enthusiasm for animation, which often gets overlooked by cinephiles, even those who enjoy it. We are living in a somewhat corporate, imaginatively stunted, morally vacant and narratively challenged era of Hollywood cinema, it often seems, but a genuine Golden Age of animated features, with Pixar at the forefront. I think Dreamworks and the other studios are only just beginning to make good animated films, but John Lassiter and his cohorts keep raising the bar.

You probably don’t need to be told to go and see this one, unless you’ve been missing out on a lot of the best mainstream cinema since TOY STORY. And you can read all about the film’s best ideas and sequences elsewhere, so I don’t feel the need to get into a big analysis, much as I loved the film. I’m kind of the cult-weird-obscure guy, I think, and should probably be writing about Russ Meyer’s UP! instead. But I was sufficiently moved and entertained that I do want to sing the movie’s praises just a little.

That opening montage of Carl Fredricksen’s life with Ellie has been justly praised for its visual beauty and emotional power — only Pixar movies seem to have this ability to open an entire audience’s tear ducts in three minutes from a standing start. TOY STORY II does this, supremely, in its “When She Needed Me,” song-montage. I’d been facially soaked by that one at the cinema, and so I had half an eye on Fiona when we watched it at home together. “Aw naw,” she moaned as the song started — this was going to be the boring song bit, it seemed — I looked at the screen, and when I looked back at Fiona an instant later she looked as if someone had just flung a mug of salty water in her face. It’s THAT devastating.

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Of course, a lot of the impact of that song — which (1) taps into our buried nostalgic feelings about beloved childhood toys, emotion which was so strong when we were very small, and which, it seems, never really goes away; and (2) smuggles in a same-sex love theme in a way prejudiced tiny minds of parents will probably never even spot — is down to Randy Newman’s achingly sentimental song, and similarly in UP the score by Michael Giacchino is mercilessly effective, knotting our heartstrings and lumping our throats.

And the movie has just begun, we still have the fat kid, and flying to South America, and the giant bird, Kevin, and the talking dogs, best of all. Animation has been doing talking dogs for close to eighty years, but this seems like the first effort to do dogs that talk the way dogs would talk if dogs could talk. “*I* was hiding under your porch because *I* love you!” is Fiona’s favourite line, and probably mine.

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(Side-note: although we own a cat, Fiona and I do like dogs. In fact, Fiona proposes that somebody needs to correct the negative impression of Siamese cats given by LADY AND THE TRAMP’s “We Are Siamese” number. Real Siamese have a doggy silliness that you never see in films. Tasha, our own puss, runs to see us when we come in, climbs up high and eagerly sniffs out heads.)

Christopher Plummer’s having a good week, what with this and THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS. Here, he’s Charles Muntz, explorer, the second of the movie’s two bad-ass septo-going-on-octogenarians, Ed Asner being the first. Muntz seems to embody our modern suspicion of the great white hunter figure who inspired so many children’s fantasies of yore. Muntz is set in his imperialist ways, and his rigidity is what makes Asner’s Fredricksen finally bend. Fredricken’s mission, to uproot and then plant his house at Paradise Falls, a Conan Doyle-style Lost World, exemplifies a popular screenwriting trope, whereby the protagonist actually has the wrong goal for the first two acts.

UP follows a lot of popular Hollywood storytelling concepts, with characters mirroring each other (Dug the dog has a similar emotional need to Russell the kid) and growing (ugh) but avoids becoming mechanistic, which seems the potential downside of over-relying on screenwriting books. As my producer friend Nigel Smith put it, the makers seem to be trying to fit the free, loose, “baggy” style of story Miyazaki excels in, into an American tight structure, without disfiguring either one. They pretty much succeed.

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A note on the 3D — it doesn’t seem to have been high on directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s list of priorities, or perhaps their goal was to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Ironic, since Roger Ebert just wrote an amusingly curmudgeonly piece about the failings of the process, how you can’t ever forget you’re watching a 3D film. In UP, I did. Doubly ironic, since although Ed Asner provides the voice for Carl Fredricksen, Roger Ebert has unquestionably furnished the face. I was expecting the movie to use 3D for vertiginous effect, but although the high-angle perspectives are spectacular, and the daredevil leaping from floating house to airship is thrilling, I never got sweaty-palmed and scared, because the action is too hectic to promote that kind of anxiety. As Harold Lloyd new well, you need to slow the pace down for that.

Other critics have questioned how Carl goes from creaky, aching old man to action hero, swinging on hosepipes like a senior Tarzan. But it is, after all, a cartoon. And a cartoon with a touching faith in the rejuvenating power of adventure. And said power is a real phenomenon, albeit one gigantically exaggerated here for dramatic effect. I was more concerned by the way little Russell gains the power to shimmy up the hosepipe, merely by being sufficiently motivated. Hollywood is big on motivation, and indeed it can be a wondrous thing. But I always resented, as a kid, movies that suggested you can do anything if prodded hard enough by necessity. Harold Lloyd again, become a football star overnight by sheer determination in THE FRESHMAN. It’s untrue. I was certainly motivated to do well at sports, because I was forced to play them and I didn’t like looking like a clown. But no matter what the motivation, I was never any good. Such motivation only causes improvement over time, with application, and there’s still a natural limit to what each of us can achieve. In between sports lessons I stayed well away from the playing field, so I never improved. Then — oh happy day! — I developed a knee complaint, and never did sport again.

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So Russell’s sudden athleticism is as exaggerated as Carl’s, and possibly more misleading to young viewers, who may wonder why they can’t become athletic just by trying terribly hard. But I’m really nitpicking here — because it gets boring just to rave about something being, you know, FUN.