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The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Theatrical Review

Heath Ledger
Christopher Plummer

Directed by:
Terry Gilliam

I'm a big fan of Terry Gilliam's work.  Gilliam is known for directing some films I consider to be classics, including Brazil, 12 Monkeys and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.  The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasuss, while not perfect, fits nicely into his canon of films.  Certainly more so than The Brothers Grimm, which always felt a bit like someone impersonating Gilliam, and given the bad word of mouth, I've avoided Tideland thus far (although I'm sure I will see it at some point so I can make my own judgement).  It also marks a great finish to Heath Ledger's all too short career, with him having passed away part way through filming.

Parnassus revolves around a crew of performers attached to a travelling roadshow.  There's Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), Anton (Andrew Garfield), Parnassus's daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and their driver - and moral compass - Percy (Verne Troyer).  Their show is performed using a run-down, horse-drawn, mobile stage that flips open to reveal a show based around a magical mirror.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is the type of film Terry Gilliam was born to direct.  Full of bizarre concepts and imagery, and taking place in great part within the imaginations of the customers of the Imaginarium.  As customers step through the magical mirror, they are enveloped by a world of their greatest dreams.  Then, as part of the "dream", they are forced to make a choice - the high road, where they become a better person and achieve true enlightenment, or the low road, where they are slave to their most base instincts (as the film implies most of us are on a day-to-day basis).

Through the course of the film we learn that Parnassus has achieved immortality through a deal with the devilish Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), but as a result, has had to make a supreme sacrifice.  Mr. Nick gets possession of Parnasuss' daughter on her 16th birthday, a mere three days away.

After a particularly bad show, our travelling band of gypsies meet up with Anthony (Heath Ledger), a mysterious man who's history is little known (even to him, initially), but who is the key to ensuring Parnassus does not lose his daughter to Mr. Nick.

Parnassus, as a film, is a classic simple tale told in an incredibly complex way.  The environments are massive in scope, and full of Gilliam's unique brand of imagination and humour.  There are moments that are simultaneously terrifying and hilarious while being incredibly symbolic in nature (as Anthony's world falls apart, his world literally begins to crumble around him) and at times Gilliam's Monty Python's roots shine through (a musical sequence involving a chorus line of British police).

This is not Avatar, however.  The environments are kept well outside the realm of any reality, and there's never any question as to whether the characters are in the real world or the Imaginarium.  The effects are at times cheesy, it feels like a film made 10 years ago,  but always serve the central story.

Gilliam has also done a brilliant job with the incredibly challenging task of replacing Heath Ledger in a film role he had only partially finished when he passed away.  Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell step in using a plot device that is explained early in the film and is consistent with the themes and conceits of the rest of the world of Dr. Parnassus.  This makes Ledger's disappearance at times less a distraction than a simple plot point that feels completely organic.

If your film tastes are drawn to less thoughtful films like Transformers, then you're probably best to spend your entertainment dollars elsewhere.  If you're a fan of Gilliam's particular off-beat view of the world, then you owe it to yourself to see The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.  It's not a film that's going to change the world, but it's good entertainment has some nice, resounding themes that suit Gilliam's style to a tee.  Gilliam's best film since Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.



Theatrical Review


Sam Worthington

Sigourney Weaver

Zoe Saldana

Directed by:
James Cameron

It has been 12 years since James Cameron has had a mainstream motion picture in theatres, and the wait has been an agonizing one for fans of his work.

Sure, he's had some IMAX 3D documentaries, and has produced some content (Solaris, Dark Angel), but he hasn't actually directed a work of fiction since Titanic took the world by storm.

James Cameron is the man who has reinvented film more often than anyone else in recent history.  He turned Arnold Schwarzneggar into a major star with The Terminator.  Arnold had been in Conan the Barbarian prior to playing the titular role in Cameron's action flick, but the role of a killer robot from the future is what the Austrian was born to play. Cameron made one of few sequels that didn't suck when he brought us Aliens, he pushed computer animation further than had been done before with The Abyss, and he made another stellar sequel in Terminator 2 (and again revolutionized effects technology). 

Cameron's work on True Lies cemented Arnold Schwarneggar's action hero status, and gave Tom Arnold a role in a film he can be proud of to this day.

Then came Titanic. 

It's easy to forget now, but at the time, it was expected that Titanic would be the end of James Cameron's career.  The movie had gone famously over budget, costing around twice as much as it was originally budgeted.  It was not completed in time for its originally slated July, 1997 release date, meaning it missed the lucrative summer movie season.  It was a long movie, running 194 minutes (advertised to theatres as "2hrs 74mins" in the hopes they'd miss the "7", and book screens without realizing how tight scheduling would be), and it starred two actors who were, at the time, relatively little known.

Leonardo DiCaprio had achieved critical success for his work in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries and Marvin's Room, but hadn't been in any films that had really broken through. 

Kate Winslet had been in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (before Jackson was a household name, keep in mind) and had a role in Sense and Sensibility, but had been flying under the mainstream radar up until that point.

Titanic looked like it was going to make people forget what a disaster Waterworld was, until it opened, that is.

It didn't have a stellar opening weekend, but did a respectable $28M in business.  Christmas was the following weekend, and Titanic expanded its grosses to $35M, and then fell to $33M for the New Year's weekend.  It was after that when Titanic's story really took shape.  It brought in more than $20M per weekend up until the end of February, a box office streak that remains unmatched.  Titanic, of course, went on to be the highest grossing film of all time (not adjusted for inflation), eventually grossing $1.8 billion worldwide.

After Titanic, James Cameron effectively disappeared, and it seemed like had spent a decade sleeping on a mattress full of $1,000 bills while occasionally doing deep sea dives in the ocean and filming them in IMAX 3D.  What Cameron was really doing, however, was waiting for technology to get to the point where he could make Avatar.

Avatar is this generation's Star Wars.  It doesn't have the most original story, the plot doesn't have very many surprising or unusual twists, but what it does do is tell a timeless tale in a manner that only someone like James Cameron can pull off.

The budget for Avatar is largely a mystery, with official studio numbers at around $230M, and unofficial numbers at around $350M.  Whatever the number is, it's all been spent up there on the big screen.

Avatar tells the story of Jake Sully, a crippled ex-Marine who steps in for his twin brother on a project that requires a specific DNA match.

Jake travels to a distant planet called Pandora to be an "Avatar driver".  This is a person who uses some high tech gadgetry to maintain a mental link between themselves and an Avatar, a biological entity that has been grown to appear to the native Pandoran species (the Na'vi) on the planet as one of their own.

Jake eventually embeds himself in the Na'vi village, and befriends Neytiri.  Throughout the course of the story, Jake comes to respect the Na'vi way of life, and to understand their core reasons for their resistance against the invading Earth people.

What's interesting about the way the story is told is that Cameron always takes the time to present the information in a way that seems plausible, and allows you to see all sides of the arguments in play.  The themes around invading "inferior" people for the resources under their feet, respecting the environment and not judging people by the colour of their skin are all there, but they all play into the main story instead of feeling like a ham-fisted "message movie".

Cameron has also realized an immersive, beautiful 3D world where it's impossible to tell what has been shot practically (very little, from what I understand) and what has been generated in computers.  He has effectively taken a leap in special effects technology that is equal to the leap that was taken when George Lucas unveiled Star Wars on the world in 1977.  This movie, more than any other, will be recognized as the turning point when the training wheels came off movie making and the only limits are the imaginations of the people making the movies (and, of course, budget).

Cameron has also created a box office juggernaut unlike any the world has seen since Titanic came out 12 years ago.  He's proven what has been said all along; if you make movies people want to see, they will come see them.

I've seen Avatar twice in theatres (both times in 3D, and if you haven't seen it yet, do everything you can to see it in Digital 3D), and will probably see it at least one more time on the big screen. 

I also look forward to the Blu-ray of this film.  While it inevitably will fall short of the cinema experience, it will offer the opportunity to look behind the curtain and understand how Cameron pulled off this unimaginable feat. 

I also look forward to what Cameron pulls out of his bag of tricks next.  I just hope it doesn't take 12 years to do it again.

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