None of these are Heath Ledger, but each hits a pinch-hit homerun.


Directed and Co-written by Terry Gilliam
2009, 122 mins.
Infinity Features Entertainment

* * * * *

At last! The Terry Gilliam movie we’ve been waiting for. Past projects from the former Monty Python cartoonist such as Brazil and The Fisher King have shown flashes of brilliance accompanied by dollops of sloppiness and structural anarchy. Quite a few—including The Brothers Grimm (2005), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and Jabberwocky (1977)—are the movie equivalent of a train wreck. Not this time. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a work of genius that’s more creative, thought-provoking, and inventive than anything you’ll see in the overrated Avatar.

Gilliam is (in)famous for having disaster strike on his sets, and this film is no exception. It co-stars Heath Ledger, who died before filming was finished. (In addition, producer Bill Vince died a week after filming ended and Gilliam was struck by a car and suffered a cracked vertebra!) Ledger’s death necessitated radical rewriting and recasting. Although the circumstances requiring this are sad, Ledger would doubtless have been pleased by the finished product.

Terry Gilliam films are seldom constrained by tight plots. The story line of Imaginarium is pretty much a pastiche of Faust and Alice in Wonderland on acid. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), the title character, gambles with the Devil/Mr. Nick (Tom Waits). Parnassus—the name evokes the home of Apollo and the Muses—is a benevolent soul who wishes to impart Apollonian wisdom to the world and relieve suffering. Like the Greek god, however, he has character flaws, not the least of which is that he shares Nick’s love of gambling. Even when Parnassus wins, Nick is generally more clever, as when Parnassus extracts victory in the form of immortality but forgets to attach eternal youth to the deal. Centuries later—after a long stint as a holy man instructing devotees—Parnassus bargains for temporary youth when he falls in love with a comely lass. His wife dies giving birth to their lovechild, Valentina (Lily Cole), and the deadline for payment is fast approaching. If Parnassus doesn’t win five souls to his cause before Nick claims five, the latter claims Valentina’s soul upon her sixteenth birthday.

This is more of a contest than one might imagine. Gilliam presents a post-belief 21st century world in which people are skeptical of both holy men and devils. Parnassus is a tottering old man traveling in a ramshackle horse-drawn cart that opens into a stage for a show that’s what you’d get if you crossed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with a carnival sideshow. Valentina sits virginally upon the stage, the love-struck Anton (Andrew Garfield) dresses as Mercury and performs a lame juggling act, and Parnassus does cheap mind-reading tricks for tips tossed by passersby. The only truly wise person in the troupe is Percy (Verne Troyer), a dwarf confidant to Parnassus. But there is a secret to the show. The “imaginarium” flogged in the come-on is real—a mirror through which one can pass into a dream world where id meets superego and both salvation and damnation are possible.

Things are bad enough for Parnassus and they get worse when Valentina and Percy cut down a hanging man, Tony (Heath Ledger), from London Bridge and revive him. Is Tony the awaited savior, or one of Nick’s minions? Watch the film to find out and be prepared to take a wild ride through your own imaginarium. Gilliam was able to enlist the late Ledger’s friends—Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell—to finish his parts and did so without resorting to cheap costuming. Because everyone inside the imaginarium has a personally tailored vision, Tony doesn’t *have* to look the same in every scene; he merely has to be believable in the moment.

This film is delicious fun on every level. There are echoes of old Python gags—such as dancing policemen in hose and heels—wonderful special effects, and terrific acting. Each of the Tonys is wonderful, with special kudos to Depp’s performance as the most egocentric of the four. Cole is a fresh new face whose desirability is enhanced by her pre-Raphaelite beauty, Troyer is a pussycat one moment and a tiger the next, and Plummer thunders and blunders across the screen as if he’s Ian McKellen as a Bowery-issue Gandalf. Best of all is Tom Waits as Mr. Nick, a wise Devil who knows that pursuit is more pleasurable than possession, and that the game is more fun than the final outcome. Amen to that. We were so engrossed in this film that it we hated to see it end.



Penelope Hepburn?

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

2009, 127 mins., R (nudity, drug usage)
El Deseo S.A.
In Spanish with English subtitles
* * ½

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is one of the most important and challenging directors of the past forty years. As such, he has made several certifiable masterpieces, including: Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), High Heels (1991), Talk to Her (2002), and Volver (2006). He’s also made several films with interesting ideas that misfired such as: Matador (1986), Kika (1994), All About My Mother (1999), and Bad Education (2004), the last of which was so bad I almost swore off Almodóvar films. With Broken Embraces, however, Almodóvar gives us something he’s never done before: a film that’s totally ordinary, clichéd, and predictable. It’s neither good nor bad, merely inconsequential. It’s (perhaps) worth seeing if you’ve nothing better to do, but it certainly won’t make you think of Almodóvar as an auteur.

By Almodóvar standards, Broken Embraces has a straightforward narrative. We are introduced to a former filmmaker, Mateo Blanco, who is now a blind writer calling himself Harry Caine (Lluis Homar). He is doted upon by his moonstruck agent, Judit (Blanca Portillo), and her young adult son, Diego (Tamar Novar). When Caine demands that Ray X, a burgeoning director, leave his apartment after sharing his script idea, we begin to learn how Blanco became Caine. From this point on we move back and forth between the present and 1992, where we meet Lena (Penélope Cruz), a former prostitute trying to go straight who is forced by her father’s staggering medical bills to become the mistress of her elderly employer, the wealthy industrialist, Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez). When Lena decides she wants to be an actress and auditions for Blanco, a classic triad develops. Martel establishes himself as the film’s producer, sends his son to the set to videotape everything he sees, and hires a lip reader to decipher conversations between Lena and Blanco. You can probably write the rest of the script from this. We see everything developing from a mile away, including the affair between Blanco and Lena, the relationship between Blanco and Judit, and the identities of both Diego and Ray X. The only real mysteries are how Mateo/Harry became blind and the whereabouts of Lena, and you could probably come up with explanations that are at least as plausible as what Almodóvar gives us.

There is some very nice camera work, including a few stunning aerial shots of a lonely costal highway, but it’s not in the service of much. The actors do a credible job throughout and Cruz has the toughest job. She has to play a marginally competent comedic actress in a star-crossed production. She’s dressed and coiffed to look like Audrey Hepburn and the film-within-a-film has the time warp quality of a 1950s French farce rather than the 1990s. Cruz is fine in this role, and she’s certainly delectable enough to be believable as the mistress of two powerful men, but it’s just not all that interesting watching Cruz being semi-competent. Woman caught between two powerful men, jealousy, revenge, a film-within-a-film, who sired whom…. all of this is very conventional stuff. Almodóvar doesn’t do a bad job with any of it, but it’s no better than what a novice would do. Who goes to an Almodóvar film to see the pedestrian?

In one of the film’s subplots, Martel exacts revenge while Mateo and Lena are off on a tryst. As producer, Martel rushes Mateo’s film into release by assembling the worst cuts of each scene, a ploy Mateo and Lena discover from a newspaper review deriding the film as a disaster. As Broken Embraces closes, Mateo is busy reassembling that film from recently surfaced footage. No surprise—the bad comedy is in the process of becoming a funny one. It’s hard not to see this is a metaphor for Broken Embraces. Surely a much sharper film must reside in Almodóvar’s vault.


Eagle Vs. Shark Video Review

Eagle vs. Shark
Directed and written by Taika Waititi
New Zealand Film Commission, 2007
88 mins.

* * *

New Zealand director Taika Waititi is better known to North Americans as Taika Cohen, the director of the offbeat Flight of the Conchords videos. (He is half Maori and half Jewish.) His 2007 feature film Eagle vs. Shark raised eyebrows at several independent film festivals, won a couple of awards, and was a finalist for the grand prize at Sundance. It didn’t win the latter and we think we know why; it’s simply too weird to evaluate objectively. We found ourselves enjoying this offbeat comedy and would recommend you give it a try, but we also suggest you have a backup film. It’s like licorice ice cream—you’ll either love it or hate it.

There are several reasons to see it. It takes us inside lifestyles that are unlike those of most of us, it treats us to surrealistic flashes of humor, and it’s simply unlike anything Hollywood would ever dream of green lighting. Describing the film is hard, but here goes.

First of all, think of the Wechsler intelligence scale. People with IQs between 80 and 90 are classified as “dull normal.” Most of the characters in this film are decidedly on the “dull” range of the spectrum; they are those often glibly labeled as “losers” by those with greater mental and economic resources (and the ones we picked on in high school). Lily (the angular Loren Holloway) is a hard-luck counter clerk at a fast-food joint called Meaty Boy Burger, a superb send-up of McDonalds-style gut-buster menus. She lives with her brother Damon, who raised her when their parents died, and who ekes out a marginal living as a cartoonist and amuses others with horribly inept impressions of celebrities that poor Lily thinks are spot-on. Lily has a heart of gold, but she’s just bad at everything she does… guitar, poetry, make-up, socializing…. In fact, she’s not even competent enough to keep her job at Meaty Boy. Her saving graces are her goodness and that she has enough sense to realize that the best she’s likely to do is hook up with someone who is her intellectual equal.

Enter Jarrod, who lacks Lily’s self-awareness. He’s vaguely handsome, but most women won’t give him a second look because he’s as dumb as a post. He’s a dweeb who thinks he’s out-grown childhood dorkiness and harbors a revenge fantasy against those who mistreated him in the past. He sells video games, which is pretty much the top of his calling, though he props himself up by surrounding himself with mates who are even duller than he. As the king of this roost—one meaning of the eagle in the film’s title—Jarrod invents a back story of a dead mother, a brother who died in an athletic competition, and a fail-safe plan to exact revenge on past tormenters. His veneer of coolness is hair-thin; his only real talent lies in playing video games.

Jarrod and Lily connect at a theme party where everyone is dressed as their favorite animals. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to deconstruct the symbolism of Lily’s shark and Jarrod’s eagle costumes. They are projections of what they want to be. Lily is really a milquetoast sardine who gets gobbled by real-life sharks, and Jarrod is a very ordinary sparrow—an awkward fledgling at that. After Lily meets Jarrod in the video game final of the party and deliberately throws the match, the two end up in bed together in one of the more bizarre and funny seduction scenes of recent memory. The two then make their way to Jarrod’s hometown, where Jarrod plans to fight his boyhood nemesis and claim his manhood. We’ll not reveal more except to say that Jarrod hasn’t been on the up-and-up about his family or his friends back home. Be prepared to meet an unforgettable and weird cast of characters. The plot—such as it is—revolves around the question of whether Jarrod will arrive at Lily’s realistic sense of self and stay with her.

We admired this film for its grit. There’s no Hollywood glamour here. For these characters, a person who can actually keep a job is successful, and one flush enough to be able to rent a car is rich. It challenges us to rethink what we mean by happiness. Is it a collection of material objects, a satisfying career, or merely the ability to accept who you are and make the best of it? Whether this film is your cup of tea will depend on your tolerance for occasionally amateurish filmmaking, whether you find Waititi’s animation sequences poignant or mawkish, and if you’ve got the patience to look beyond awkward surfaces. The more we thought of it, the better it seemed, but—as we said—have a backup plan just in case.



A Single Man
Directed and Written by Tom Ford
Artina Films, 2009, 99 mins.
R for gay themes and partial nudity

* * * * *

If you planned to end it all, how would you spend your last day? That’s the simple premise of A Single Man, though there’s nothing simplistic about how the film’s protagonist, George Falconer (Colin Firth), approaches what he hopes will be his swan song to life.

If your take on being gay in America is Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, A Single Man may be too sensual and too multifaceted for your taste. If, on the other hand, you want to get a sense of life in the closet in the days before Stonewall and Harvey Milk, A Single Man is a fine starting point. It’s November, 1962­—just a month after the Cuban Missile Crisis—and George Falconer is a respected English professor at a university somewhere in Los Angeles. Outwardly George has a lot going for him. He drives a flashy car, lives in a book-filled but meticulously clean architect-designed house, and is considered brilliant by his colleagues. Sure he’s a tad eccentric, as befits an Englishman in California, but most think he's as serious as the tailored suits, dry-cleaned white shirts, and heavy black-framed glasses that are his daily uniform.

Very few know that George is gay. It’s a secret known only to intimates, such as his longtime friend and former lover, Charlotte, though immediate neighbors have their suspicions. Charlotte—known affectionately as Charley—is deliciously played as a boozy floozy by Julianne Moore. She is a fellow Londoner who made her way to California via a bad marriage and now wastes her days amidst an empty upscale house and drained gin bottles. Moore has a smallish part, but she’s fabulous in it. She’s a woman on the verge in heavy eye shadow slathered on in a losing battle to mask aging. Physically she walks a wobbly line between desirable and past-its-sell-by-date. She makes no secret of the fact that she’s more than willing to fill George’s void.

And what a void it is. His lover of sixteen years, Jim, was killed in a car crash eight months earlier and George has been in a sleepwalker’s daze ever since. He’s deeply pained and totally drained. As he contemplates his future without Jim, all he can conjure is the past. He’s like the clueless students to whom he vainly tries to teach an Aldous Huxley novel--only tangentially in the moment. So why go on?

There are parallels to A Christmas Carol as George wends his way through what might be his last day on earth. He’s haunted by several ghosts of his past (Charley and vivid memories of Jim), considers a present liaison in the form of a handsome Spanish-speaker—an echo of the missile crisis?—and even contemplates whether there might be a future in hooking up with Kenny Potter (Nicholas Hoult), a blue-eyed student who seems to be flirting with him. No spoilers here—see the film to see how this resolves.

A few things to look for: First of all, there is Tom Ford’s very sharp direction. He enhances George’s numbness by shooting each sequence as if it’s that semi-conscious moment between dreaming and full awakening. He extends it to all aspects of the film, including insightful pan shots of students who seem to be waiting for something—anything—to happen. Kenny’s (perhaps) girlfriend, the blank-faced Alva (Paulette Lamori), is walking ennui, a faux beatnik in a world that scarcely remembers the Beats. Even the terror of Cuba is receding.

All of the performances are worthy of watching closely. Moore and Firth have deservedly won awards at several film festivals. Firth is magnificent and does a turn that’s the equivalent of a frog in a pan of water being slowly heated. There are no histrionics to get in the way of pathos, and no out-of-character moments of blinding revelation to dissolve into triteness. Nor is he afraid to play gay; unlike mainstream studio productions, the men in this film do kiss—passionately—and seductions look like seductions.

Finally, check out this movie as a time capsule. Ford mostly gets 1962 right. It’s easy to forget that the 1960s don’t really get cranked up until after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963; the early '60s were a liminal moment in which it was clear that one set of standards was passing, but no one had much of a handle on what was coming next. This was especially the case for gay men. To put in perspective, Smith College dismissed three gay profs in 1960, and the American Psychiatric Association still classified homosexuality as a mental illness. The George Falconers of the world could have only dreamed of Stonewall. But don’t take my word for it; try the eponymous Christopher Isherwood novel upon which this film’s script is based. Isherwood’s own life as a gay man has been chronicled in Chris & Don: A Love Story. If you’ve not seen that independent gem, rent it after seeing A Single Man.

PS--Don't confuse this film with the Coen brothers' boring A Simple Man.