Archive for January, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Monday, January 25th, 2010


Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” will draw some spectators solely on the morbid curiosity factor that director Terry Gilliam was in production when actor Heath Ledger died.  Gilliam, who continues to earn his reputation as one of the least fortunate filmmakers in the business, scrambled to salvage something worthwhile from the tragedy, but like so many of the fabulist’s features, the resulting movie is sloppy and poorly paced, lurching from one wild idea to another.  “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is closer to “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” than “The Brothers Grimm,” but like the latter, a dependence on computer-generated special effects will make many of Gilliam’s ardent supporters long for the handmade physicality of the pre-digital years.

Christopher Plummer plays the title character, a traveling carnival magician and Gilliam surrogate who makes ill-advised wagers with the Devil himself.  As the King of Hell, known principally as Mr. Nick, Tom Waits alternates between the “can’t be bothered” cool of his cultivated persona and the growls and barks of a well-lubricated guard dog in the style of Nick Nolte.  With Lucifer close at hand, Parnassus lumbers around modern day London in an anachronistic theatre wagon, facing the unfortunate prospect of having to turn over his nearly sixteen-year-old daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) to the evil one.  Parnassus, naturally, has not told his lovely offspring that her soul risks imminent forfeiture to Beelzebub.

Ledger enters the story as Tony, a possible amnesiac who joins the disheveled troupe and poses an immediate romantic threat to Parnassus’ underling Anton (Andrew Garfield) for the affections of Valentina.  Tony shakes up the daily routine, suggesting a new look for the nightly show that sends attendees through a Lewis Carroll-esque looking glass into a fantasy domain where Gilliam’s images blossom into arrays of surrealistic spectacle.  When Tony enters the hidden realm of the imaginarium to take part in scenes that had not been shot at the time of Ledger’s death, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell take over as the character.

The presence of the three stars has a curious impact on the movie, calling attention to Ledger’s absence while simultaneously providing the means for Gilliam to complete the film.  Ledger’s Tony is not the center of the movie, but the performer’s literal graven image overshadows the players with whom he shares scenes.  In particular, Verne Troyer is wretched and out of his depth as Parnassus company member Percy.  The diminutive actor fails to convincingly deliver a single line, infusing his readings with the flat, self-conscious cadences often heard in junior high school drama productions.  In hindsight, Mike Myers look brilliant for rendering Mini-Me mute.

Gilliam and screenwriting collaborator Charles McKeown tangentially address themes of death, but the most thought-provoking issues that surround fame and immortality, dying young, and the afterlife are drowned in the parade of Gilliam’s chaotic, frantic images.  In one eerie moment, miniature effigies picturing the likes of Princess Diana and James Dean float down a river that might be Styx, and the viewer half expects to see Ledger himself included in the group.  He isn’t, but his participation in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” fixes the movie as a strange memorial that dominates any reading Terry Gilliam might otherwise have solicited or desired.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/25/10.

The Young Victoria

Monday, January 18th, 2010


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Judging from photographs as well as the popular imagination, Emily Blunt’s beautiful neck is at least twice as long as Queen Victoria’s, but historical fidelity is not the first thing on the mind of filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, whose “The Young Victoria” is an entertaining, sumptuous, and romantic confection.  Blunt has been marvelous in several films, especially “My Summer of Love” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” and the performer capitalizes here on a title role that allows her to inject modernity into what might otherwise have been a stuffy period costume ball.  Blunt’s sunny demeanor contrasts sharply with portraits of the morose majesty, and the movie is better for it.

“The Young Victoria” needs neither its obvious voiceover (it would surely be better to show, rather than tell, the audience that for Victoria, “Even a palace can be a prison”) nor its somber title cards announcing milestones in the monarch’s biography.  The film could also use a great deal more of Jim Broadbent as King William IV.  Broadbent relishes the puffery and pomposity of a hilarious banquet scene outburst that sends Miranda Richardson, the manipulative Duchess of Kent and Victoria’s mama, scurrying from the table.  Paul Bettany is underused as Lord Melbourne and Rupert Friend is handsome as Victoria’s husband-to-be, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Julian Fellowes’ screenplay switches between the blossoming romance of Victoria and Albert and the political jockeying that consumes the lives of those in the young royals’ orbit.  Fellowes opts to restrict the film’s point of view to the opulent quarters of the wealthy power brokers, a move that closes off any understanding of the common people who hate Victoria one day and love her the next.  This lack of perspective generates even more confusion when “The Young Victoria” alludes to widespread unrest.  An angry protestor chucks a brick through a window, and a slow-motion assassination attempt intrudes on Victoria’s cloistered world, but without further explanation, everyone pretty much goes about his or her business.

Despite some expository gaps, Vallee paces the 104-minute film with economy and fluidity, and as a result, “The Young Victoria” does not overstay its welcome.  History nuts, certain to gripe that Albert never actually took a bullet for his wife, might leave the theater feeling a little undernourished, but the movie has more than enough climbing through the House of Hanover’s family tree to send the faithful to their encyclopedias.  The depiction of the Kensington System, the elaborate set of rules forced upon Victoria by her mother, accounts for the Queen’s early unhappiness and offers the filmmakers a perfect conflict through which to dramatize Victoria’s eventual rejection of her mother’s control.

The strength of “The Young Victoria” rests with Blunt’s delightfully anachronistic performance and Vallee’s looseness with the title character’s courtship and eventual marriage to Prince Albert.  Victoria’s connubial bliss, complete with an impetuous frolic in the rain and a chaste bedchamber romp, imagines a side of the ruler seldom if ever seen, and Blunt and Friend make believable the joys and the frustrations of newlyweds bound by peculiar traditions, protocols, and expectations.  The script touches on gender, but never long enough to establish a substantive meditation on feminine power in interpersonal relationships.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 1/18/10.

Youth in Revolt

Monday, January 11th, 2010


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Arriving after a sporadically produced stage play and an unaired television pilot, “Youth in Revolt,” the Miguel Arteta adaptation of C.D. Payne’s comic coming-of-age writings is a film so wispy it almost blows away when you sigh from your theatre seat.  It is also often funny and generally entertaining.  Michael Cera makes a fetching Nick Twisp, upped in age from just shy of fourteen to a more sexually mature sixteen.  Opening with a vigorous masturbation sequence that intrudes over the studio logos, “Youth in Revolt” announces ribald intentions that never convincingly materialize, despite plenty of hilarious conversation about all things carnal.

Twisp is another smart, self-deprecating, hyper self-aware teen, the type who listens to vintage Sinatra on vinyl and rents foreign language Criterion Collection DVDs.  Disgusted by the sex lives of his divorced parents and their partners, Nick fantasizes about losing his virginity, and his lustfulness turns to obsession when he falls under the spell of Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), a well-read Francophile whose quick wit and charisma instantly overpower Nick.  Sheeni calls out Nick when he mixes up Mizoguchi with Ozu, and despite living under the watchful eyes of her conservative, religious parents, she emerges as someone with her own designs on life beyond the Ukiah trailer park where she first meets Nick.

Despite Sheeni’s objectified position as Nick’s inamorata, Doubleday capitalizes on her opportunities, and will leave many viewers convinced that she would have made a principal character and protagonist every bit as interesting as the young Mr. Twisp.  Doubleday inscribes notes of condescension and aloofness in her interpretation of Sheeni, and the performer navigates the character’s detachment and frankness with dexterity.   “Youth in Revolt” is less interesting when Sheeni is not onscreen, and relative newcomer Doubleday will hopefully turn up in more features in the near future.

Among Payne fans, there will be much debate concerning the extent to which Nick’s alter ego Francois Dillinger, a wolfish, Belmondo-esque hustler who would like to tickle Sheeni’s belly button “from the inside,” succeeds, as Cera is called upon to play opposite himself in several special effects-driven scenes in the style of “The Parent Trap” and the more recent “Moon.”  Nick’s other persona and feminine side, Carlotta Ulansky, sees Cera cross-dressing to get close to Sheeni, but the ruse is played broadly and briefly, like many other outrageous gags that Arteta stages but neglects to develop.  Interstitial animations in different styles also contribute to the anarchic, grab-bag approach favored by the filmmaker.

For a film that purports to traffic in teenage rebellion, “Youth in Revolt” sticks with a familiar game plan.  Several set pieces, including dormitory shenanigans, a ballet of automotive destruction, and a Thanksgiving feast that sees a host of authority figures under the influence of hallucinogens, have already been done to death in sit-coms and teensploitation.  “Youth in Revolt” is always at its best when focused on Nick’s droll, biting observations about the injustices and frustrations of his daily life, and Cera’s skillful comic timing elicits many laughs.  The movie may not do much to change perceptions of its lead actor as an awkward man-child, but Michael Cera does it as well as anyone.

This review was published originally for Southpawfilmworks the week of 1/11/10.

The Road

Monday, January 4th, 2010


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Something important went missing in the filmic translation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” by director John Hillcoat.  Hillcoat’s “The Proposition,” a smart, grueling Western set in 1880s Australia caught the eye of “The Road” producer Nick Wechsler, who imagined that the filmmaker could recapture the terrible beauty of Hillcoat’s 2005 success.  This time around, Hillcoat capably visualizes the grim death of civilization, but “The Road” strings together a series of almost self-contained episodes that rob the story of momentum.

Like “Mad Max,” “28 Days Later,” “Children of Men,” “I Am Legend,” and 2009’s “Terminator Salvation,” “Zombieland,” and “2012,” “The Road” is another entry in the post-apocalypse filmmaking derby that has become a staple of several genres.  “The Road” leans heavily and needlessly on the weary voiceover of protagonist Viggo Mortensen, known metonymically as the Man, who leads his son, the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), through a devastated landscape populated with cannibalistic scavengers.  Neither book nor film offers a specific explanation of the cataclysm that wiped out most plant and animal life, a choice that should focus one’s attention on the emotional relationship of father and son instead of the doomsday spectacle.

Joe Penhall’s screenplay hews closely to the events in McCarthy’s novel, but Charlize Theron, who appears in several flashbacks as Mortensen’s wife, plays a much larger role in the film version.  Along with sun-dappled visions of happier times, including a pastoral glimpse of the Man and his horse and a surreptitious grope during a public music performance, these interludes presumably break up the monotony of the Man’s quest to reach the rumored safety of the coast.  A perfunctory birthing scene – which should have intensified the inevitable and impending horror awaiting the newborn – is vexingly ordinary.  McCarthy has been parsed and criticized for ignoring women, but Theron’s duties in the movie add little to the present-tense immediacy of the father and son ordeal.

The most interesting carryover from the novel considers whether the Man is, as the Boy hopes, “one of the good guys,” and Hillcoat flirts with the question in a handful of scenes in which the Man makes starkly cruel choices, presumably to defend his son.  In one, Robert Duvall makes a cameo appearance as a decrepit traveler upon whom the Boy takes pity.  Duvall hangs around long enough to gush vomit and share some cryptic wisdom (not necessarily in that order, although it doesn’t really matter), but the Man refuses to offer him anything beyond canned fruit cocktail.  In another passage, the Man humiliates a would-be thief (Michael Kenneth Williams), divesting him of everything he needs in order to survive.

Unfortunately, Hillcoat doesn’t explore the Man’s impossible decisions, and since the audience is invited to identify with his role as a whatever-it-takes guardian and protector, the Man metaphorically assumes a Christ-like mien, especially as the magnitude of his sacrifice approaches its final moments.  Viewers unfamiliar with the novel might be more forgiving of the director’s handling of both the plot elements and the voice of the Man, but admirers of McCarthy’s unmistakable prose will flinch when exchanges that were stony on the page melt into goopy puddles.

This review was published originally for Southpawfilmworks the week of 1/4/10.