Norse gods are such buttinskies,.. Syfy wants to take 12 MONKEYS to series… Bill Plympton salutes those CHEATIN’ hearts…
From the luxurious Cinefantastique Online studios in NYC, Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world of fantastic film & TV.
In an interview from Turner Classic movies, filmmaker Terry Gilliam provides his perspective on the differences between Stanely Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Essentially, it comes down to this: Spielberg provides comforting answers for his audience; Kubrick (as in 2001: A SPACY ODYSSEY) raises challenging questions that provoke the audience to think.
To underline his point, Gilliam quotes an exchange between Kubrick and Frederick Raphael, his co-writer on EYES WIDE SHUT. In Raphael’s memoir of their working relationship, Eyes Wide Open, he recounts a conversation regarding films that have depicted the Holocaust. Raphael shows off his smarts by mentioning obscure titles, while Kubrick keeps asking “What else?” Finally, Raphael is forced to mention the elephant in the room SCHINDLER’S LIST. What follows goes like this:
STANLEY KUBRICK: “Think that was about the Holocaust?” FREDERICK RAPHAEL: “Wasn’t it? What else was it about?” STANLEY KUBRICK: “That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. SCHINDLER’S LIST was about 600 people who don’t.”
Empire Online have been talking to director Terry Gilliam (TWELFTH MONKEYS, BRAZIL) at the Cannes film festival and it appears Ewan McGregor (STAR WARS, THE ISLAND) has been cast in his latest film, THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE.
DON QUIXOTE is a fantasy/sci-fi film about an advertising executive who, after finding himself unstuck in time, unwittingly travels between modern day London and 17th century La Mancha where he participates in the adventures of Don Quixote. This is Gilliam’s second attempt at making the film; the earlier version started production in 2000 but was halted by the constant noise of overhead fighter jets, the lead actor attaining a torn spine and even a flash flood. The production was a notorious failure for the director and even spawned a documentary on the subject, LOST IN LA MANCHA.
After finishing work on his last film THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, however, Gilliam decided to revisit DON QUIXOTE and resumed production on the film in 2009. Robert Duvall (THX, THE ROAD) has replaced Jean Rochefort as the titular QUIXOTE and now Ewan McGregor has been cast as the advertising executive, replacing Johnny Depp (who is probably too busy with PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 4). Gilliam had this to say of his new cast:
“Robert Duvall is one of the greats, no question – and he can ride a horse! And Ewan has gotten better over the years. He was wonderful in The Ghost. There’s a lot of colours to Ewan that he’s not been showing recently and it’s time for him to show them again. He’s got a great sense of humour and he’s a wonderful actor. He’s wonderfully boyish and can be charming – when he flashes a smile, everybody melts. He wields it like a nuclear bomb!”
Gilliam also stated that the budget of the movie will be around $20 million, a lot less than the $35 million he had to play with way back in 2000. Gilliam has been through so much with this film, and the idea sounds so good, that we should all be praying to the movie gods it finally gets made this time around.
Tuesday, April 27’s horror, fantasy, and science fiction home video releases include two films that recently received limited theatrical exposure, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS and TRANSYLMANIA, and two older titles getting a new Blu-ray treatment, ARMAGEDDON and DUNE. IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS is the first genuine Terry Gilliam fantasy film in quite a while (as opposed to the dull THE BROTHERS GRIMM, which he directed but did not write). It’s not match for his best work, but it is nice to see Gilliam back in the same old groove, exploring the collision between reality and fantasy. The film makes its debut on DVD and Blu-ray; the latter disc is loaded with extras, including an audio commentary, an introduction by Gilliam, four minutes of deleted scenes, five featurettes, a multi-angle sequence, a wardrobe test and an interview with actor Heath Ledger (who died midway through production), a cast and crew presentation, a look at the “Artwork of Doctor Parnassus,” and trailers.
TRANSYLMANIA is a horror comedy about some stupid college students who make the mistake of enrolling in Transylvania University in the hope of meeting some hot Romanian women – do you think they’ll turn out to be vampires? The DVD features an unrated cut of the film.
Both ARMAGEDON and DUNE have been the subject of previous DVD editions that included bonus features not available on the new Blu-ray editions, so buyers will likely be interested only for the improved audio-video quality. ARMAGEDDON (reviewed here) features solid picture and sound, but lacks the extras seen in Criterion’s now out-of-print double-disc DVD. The single-disc Blu-ray of DUNE clocks in at 137 minutes, which probably is just fine with director David Lynch. The old two-disc DVD included both Lynch’s theatrical cut and an extended television version stitched together without his approval (Lynch had his name taken off the later, because the additional scenes featured unfinished footage missing the special effects). DUNE is not top-level Lynch, but it is interesting for fans to see what happened when he was put in charge of a major Hollywood production.
Top: Ink. Left: The Ghost Writer. Right: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
It’s a genre light week, with no new horror, fantasy, or science fiction titles released in cinemas, so Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski take this opportunity to shine a little much-deserved light on some overlooked and/or under-rated genre titles. The main topic of discussion is INK, the surprisingly good low-budget fantasy film about a girl kidnapped by a dream demon. Also under analysis, Roman Polanski’s Kafkaesque thriller THE GHOST WRITER, starring Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor, playing in limited release in New York and Los Angeles. And Terry Gilliam’s THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS, which received only a small release earlier this year.
It’s nice to finally see a Terry Gilliam film on the big screen again. It’s been a long time since the back-to-back box office debacles of BRAZIL (1985) and THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988) sent him scurrying to prove that he could turn a profit by working more as a hired gun than an auteur, directing other people’s screenplays or adapting other people’s books instead creating his own original scenarios. The results have been sometimes satisfying (THE FISHER KING and 12 MONKEYS were not only entertaining; they also connected thematically with his own work), sometimes frustrating (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS caught the ups and downs of a drug-fueled perspective but didn’t necessarily make us care about that perspective), and sometimes disappointing (THE BROTHERS GRIMM feels like an attempt to cram Gilliam’s usual concerns into the format of a commercial Hollywood film, with results that are not only dire but also dull). Good, bad, or indifferent, none of these titles quite qualifies as a genuine “Terry Gilliam Film” despite the possessory credit he managed to maintain on screen. (There was one near-miss: the aborted THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, with a screenplay co-written by Gilliam, would have been a return to form, but it was felled by numerous disasters, as depicted in the documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA.)
After this long history of frustration and disappointments, the release of THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (which opens today in limited Oscar-qualifying engagements before widening next year) is a moment worth celebrating. This is an authentic Terry Gilliam film, written with long-time collaborator Charles McKeown (who co-scripted BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN), which traffics in themes that characterize Gilliam’s best work: It’s about the importance of imagination over pragmatism, about the capacity of fantasy to enrich souls deadened by the weight of too much reality. Or put another way, this is a film that celebrates the all important “Sense of Wonder” that is at the heart of the best cinefantastique.
It would be supremely satisfying, therefore, to announce that THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS is a triumphant return to form for Gilliam; unfortunately, the film represents a return of both the strengths and weaknesses inherent in his work. For all his extolling of the virtues of imagination and wonder, Gilliam often finds it difficult to capture that wonder on screen; the result is a little bit like listening to someone deliver a lecture on the benefits of humor, without being able to actually tell a funny joke.
Gilliam dramatizes his theme in the opening sequence: In modern day England, outside a night-club frequented by drunken dullards, an ancient traveling sideshow – the titular “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” – roles out its wares for an unappreciative public. We immediately know that we are supposed identify with Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his traveling troup of performers, including the handsome young Anton (Andrew Garfield), the diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer, Mini-Me in the AUSTIN POWERS movies), and Parnassus’ daughter Valentina (Lily Cole); however, their performance is so dull that one easily understands the derisive reaction it receives. The show consists mostly of Parnassus sitting in an immobile trance, and things only get interesting when one obnoxious club-goer storms the stage and disappears through a mirror that takes him into an alternate reality. Confusion then ensues when Parnassus admonishes his daughter that this is never supposed to happen. (What? Parnassus expects his audiene to take his word for the wonders on the other side of the mirror?)
After this awkward opening, we go into a long stretch filling in the back story. Doctor Parnassus, we learn, is immortal, or at least very long-lived; he has spent decades if not centuries of millenia matching wits in an on-going contest with the devilish Mr. Nick (an excellent Tom Waits). The latest challenge involves who can be the first to save or damn a certain number of souls, with Valentina as the prize. Complicating matters is the fact that the young Valentina, who is about to become of age, yearns to leave behind the wonders of her father’s Imaginarium, in favor of a simple domestic life – one which the smitten Anton would love to bestow upon her, if only she would return his ardent love.
The set-up is rich with possibilities, presenting us with interesting variations on characters seen in previous Gilliam films. The aging Doctor Parnassus, with his tall tales of fantastic adventures, is another version of Baron Munchausen; as embodied by Plummer, he also bears a strong resemblance to the romantic idealist Don Quixote – a semblance further underlined by the presence of Troyer in what is essentially the “Sancho Panza” role – the voice of ironic pragmatism that calls Parnassus back to practical matters that he might overlook from having his head too far in the clouds. Likewise, Parnassus’s daughter Valentina is an older, post-adolescant version of the young girl from MUNCHAUSEN – the latest incarnation of a recurring character in Gilliam’s work, the next generation charged with taking up the baton from the old teller of wild tales.
Unfortunately, the story construction is delivered in the form of leaden exposition lacking any spark of creative life (even flashbacks of the first encounter between Parnassus and Mr. Nick do little to galvanize the tedious first act). The love story between Anton and Valentina is written in generic terms, and the performers, though appealing, are unequal to the tast of making us feel the desire, yearning, and passion that the script has not supplied. Consequently, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS begins to feel abstract and distant, a film about wonder without any actual wonder in it.
Fortunately for all concerned, the troop discovers a body hanging by his neck from a bridge. The not-quite-dead man turns out to be Tony (Heath Ledger), who has no memory of how he came to be in that near-fatal position – although the presence of a small metal tube in his throat, which prevented his wind pipe from being closed by the noose, suggests he escaped a murder attempt. By virtue of the mystery surrounding him, Tony is more interesting than the other characters; he has an ambiguity the others lack. He is also performed by an actor with the skill to take over the screen and breathe some life into the lethargic proceedings. Once Ledger appears, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS almost turns into another movie: What had seemed dry and academic up to this point becomes fun, entertaining, and even, at times, wonderful.
Tony immediately sees what has been obvious to the audience from the opening scene: the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is badly in need of an update for the 21st century. He radically revamps the presentation, easily luring in new customers who are enthralled and beguiled by their brief visits to the wonderland residing behind the magical irror. This leads to several sequences in which Gilliam shows off his patented visual flair for fantasy; although in this case the old hand-made style makes way for modern computer-generated effects, much of the old charm retains intact.
These are also notable because they involve the three other actors as Tony: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Although THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS should right be viewed as an auteur piece that resides comfortably within the context of of Terry Gilliam’s previous work, it will inevitable be regarded through the prism of the unfortunate circumstance of its creation: Heath Ledger died after completing all of the “reality” scenes, forcing Gilliam to recast Tony. Although certainly unusual, this is not a unique strategy; Luis Bunuel did something similar in THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977), with similar results: namely, making the character more abstract, more of a mystery, someone who presents more than one face to the world, leaving you to wonder which, if any, represents the reality of the identity within.
The result works perfectly on screen. If you happen to be one of the few ticket-buyers unaware of the film’s tragic history, the substition of alternate faces seems integral to the story (Tony enters the Imaginarium with different characters; each new appearance of his conforms to what these other characters want to see). For the majority of viewers, who do know the story behind the making of IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASUS, the sight of the late Ledger’s friends – Depp, Law, and Farrell – filling in for him is not only magical but sadly moving, as they channel some essence of inner character, suggesting an underlying continuity hidden behind their different faces. It is really not fair to judge a film’s achievements based on such a matter of necessity, but these moments really will bring a pang to your heart. In the past, Gilliam has spoken of his need to confront challenges in order to achieve his best results; faced with a seemingly insurmountable one, he managed to find a solution that serves both the film and the memory of its late star, acting as a fitting tribute (although the title card “A Film by Heath Ledger and his Friends” borders on exploiting the actor’s death).
In any case, thanks to Tony’s showmanship, Doctor Parnassus is soon reclaiming the souls of enough customers to edge ahead in his contest with Mr Nick – until complications set in. There are hints that Tony may have been involved in raising money for the poor, but a disreputable air hangs around him – the air of a con man. Valentina sees only the charm; Anton is of course suspicious. The love triangle leads to trouble, and in a rather unusual development, Valentina allows herself to be seduced by the mystery man. Her transformation from virginal innocence to post-coital bliss is one of the more striking images in the film, but it exists in a vacuum virtually without consequences (after its plot function is served, it is simply forgotten, with no effect on the character’s ultimate fate).
Eventually, the truth about Tony is revealed; Valentina rebels against her father; and Doctor Parnassus takes action to rescue Valentina from Tony and/or Mr. Nick, leading to the film’s other unusual element (for Gilliam at least): an ending in which conventional, boring, ordinary life is upheld as the ideal of happiness. The thematics are vaguely askew, perhaps just simply vague. The tryst between Tony and Valentine ignites the sparks lacking in the love story between Anton and Valentina, suggesting some schism between love and passion; it’s one step removed from the suggetion that female sexual satisfaction occurs only in a context of tawdry duplicity. Apparently having learned her lesson, Valentina retreats into a domestic life reminiscent of a sexless ’50s television show.
Regardless of whether the thematic threads can be sorted out in a satisfying way, the latter portions of THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS retain their appeal, rewarding the audience for sitting through the slow set-up. Plummer brings dignity and an air of sadness to the aging Parnassus, and Troyer’s Percy is the perfect foil for the old wizard. Waits is excellent as the unctuous Mr. Nick, sly and insinuating, always insisting that he enjoys the contest with Parnassus for the sport, not for a chance to win his soul. But above it all, the film is a triumph for Ledger. Although the role is no match for his insanely effective turn as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, his presence illustrates how a star can illuminate material that is otherwise not as bright as it should be. His presence lights up the film and goes a long way toward eclipsing its imperfections. Thanks to him, Gilliam fans in a forgiving frame of mind can leave the theatre feeling that THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS was almost everything it should have been. THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS (2009). Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown. Cast: Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, Tom Waits, Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare.
I’ve been a big fan of director Terry Gilliam for a long time, but THE BROTHERS GRIMM is the worst thing he made since his terrible solo (i.e., non-Monty Python) debut, JABBERWOCKY. The script by Ehren Krueger is terrible: the story is muddled, confused, leaden, and uninteresting. And Gilliam’s patented visual style only makes things worse, weighing everything down, dragging out dull scenes with excess flash that only reminds us how empty and unimaginative this fantasy film is.
The special effects are a near disaster. Gone is the hands-made approach of previous Gilliam films, which not only looked good but suited his overall visual style, lending his fantasies a distinctive touch of personality. Instead, we get lame, impersonal digital work – which is bad enough, but much of it is also totally unconvincing. In fact, the CGI is so phony you keep thinking, “Well, it’s supposed to be like a fairly tale, so it doesn’t have to be realistic.”
However, the tone of THE BROTHERS GRIMM is decidedly not a fairy tale at all. It’s filled with severed heads, bisected bodies, and other repellent violence. The whole thing is so goofy that the gore doesn’t really horrify; it just feels repulsive because it’s so out-of-place and inappropriate. The film starts off as if it wants to be a light-hearted romp, then turns murky, muddy, and uglier by the second.
The stars keep acting as if the whole thing is good fun, but they can’t convince us, no matter how hard they try. Jonathan Pryce (who appeared in previous Gilliam films BRAZIL and THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN) gives it his best shot, but it’s a hopeless effort. And Peter Stormare is tedious in a supporting role. Long before THE BROTHERS GRIMM is over, you will wish the whole thing had come to a merciful end.
It’s not hard to see why the subject matter might have interested Gilliam: THE BROTHERS GRIMM offers another collision of fantasy and reality, with lots of opportunities for interesting visuals. But the lead characters in this story (unlike TIME BANDITS, etc.) are not imaginative dreamers; they’re con men who exploit people’s beliefs in myths and legends. So Pryce’s character (basically a reprise of his villainous voice-of-reason martinet from MUNCHAUSEN) doesn’t work very well as an antagonist, because he’s basically right. Consequently, it’s impossible to identify deeply with the story or care how it turns out.
If this is the best that Hollywood will let Gilliam do, he should just quit making Hollywood films. I know he dreams big and wants the budgets to see those dreams realized, but this isn’t worth it. The only redeeming feature is the hope that his salary from THE BROTHERS GRIM will help him set up a good, old-fashioned Gilliam film, in the tradition of his excellent early work. THE BROTHERS GRIMM (2005). Directed by Terry Gilliam. Written by Ehren Kruger. Cast: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger, Peter Stormare, Jonathan Pryce, Lena Headey, Monica Bellucci.
An Ambitious and amazing feature-length re-imagining of the classic short subject “La Jetee.”
This is feature-length remake of LA JETEE, the short-subject masterpiece by Chris Marker that portrayed time travel as a kind of moebius strips folding back on itself. The original short was a remarkable piece of film-making with a style inextricably linked to its content. Perhaps LA JETEE’s auteur, Chris Marker, was simply using techniques from his documentary background (the story is told in a series of still frames, with a voice-over narrating the events); however, those frozen moments of time cannot help but enhance a story about the nature of time and returning to specific moments over and over again.
In retrospect, there was never any chance that 12 MONKEYS would turn out to be a literal remake; instead, it is a re-imagining of the basic premise, dramatized in conventional dramatic terms. Needless to say, director Terry Gilliam films his actors at twenty-four frames per second, not in still photographs. Nevertheless, 12 MONKEYS is not simply a Hollywood mainstreaming of a European art film. In fact, this independently financed effort was probably the most difficult and challenging film released by a major studio (Universal Pictures) in 1995. Continue reading “12 Monkeys (1995) – Science Fiction Film Review”→