Ledger’s Last Film: Good But Not Great Gilliam

(Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2009)

Terry Gilliam is infamous for problems plaguing (and sometimes halting) many of the productions of his fantastically far-fetched films, but as I’m sure folks reading this well know, none have been hit harder than this one. The untimely death of Heath Ledger midway through shooting threatened to squash the project, but Gilliam came up with a solution to cast 3 of Ledger’s acting peers to fill in for his remaining scenes.

It helps the conceit that in the story Ledger’s character steps through a magic mirror into another world in which he could be somewhat plausibly changed into another person. It also helps that the 3 actors filling in just happen to be very big names in the business: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.

Given these circumstances, the finished film works better than it has a right to. Working with a much lower budget than before, Gilliam knows how to draw an audience in to a strange setting, one that’s familiar to fans with its ratty stage folk and tall tales that just might be true. In the title role, Christopher Plummer, made to look ten times scragglier than usual, leads a group of show folks making their way around modern day London in a make-shift stage vehicle. The group is made up of the Doctor’s daughter (Lily Cole), a clever but neurotic magician (Andrew Garfield), and an out-spoken dwarf (Verne Troyer) who has many of the films best lines.

Plummer tells his daughter (and us) his bizarre back story (well, bizarre if you’ve never seen a Gilliam film before) involving a deal with the Devil (a terrific Tom Waits) and the darkening of his visions. When crossing a bridge in the middle of the night the traveling troupe comes across Ledger hanging from a noose. They get him down and find he’s still alive. When he comes to the next day he asks where he is. Troyer answers:

“Geographically, in the Northern Hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. Narratively, with some way to go.”

Ledger has no memory of his life before his suicide attempt so he joins the Imaginarium players, soon making changes to their set and presentation. A crumbled newspaper page blowing around the rubble of the seedy dank underworld they call home reminds Ledger of his shady background, but he continues to go along with the troupe especially after learning that the Doctor’s Imaginarium is no scam.

The film beautifully builds up to when Ledger first goes through the mirror and the transition to Johnny Depp is successfully smooth. Depp has the briefest bit of the guest replacement actors, but makes the most of it with his patented eyebrow exercises and dance moves. Jude Law and Colin Farrell are well suited for the smarmy greedy parts of Ledger’s personality that emerge in further mirror excursions if indeed that’s what they were supposed to symbolize.

Such errant elements in the second half don’t gel well and key plot points are muddled or clumsily glossed over, but that Gilliam was able to complete this film to as coherent as it is makes up for a great deal of defects.

THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN is the closest relative IMAGINARIUM has in Gilliam’s canon. Both deal with wizened old men spinning legends out of their outrageous realities; performing their fables on the sideshow circuit, laying in wait for fortune or death – or both. IMAGINARIUM has a much lower budget that MUNCHAUSEN, yet it benefits from less aesthetic indulgence and its smaller scale gives it more intimacy.

It’s far from Gilliam’s best movie, and it’s far from Ledger’s best performance, but as a salvaged final project, I’m glad THE IMAGINARIUM exists. It’s a mixed bag of a movie (and may still have been had Ledger lived), but it’s a still a fairly fun film and a fitting tribute. At the end we are told that this is “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.” I know it’s lame to say that ‘it’s the thought that counts’, but dammit – it counts the most here.

More later…

High Concept Holmes

(Dir. Guy Ritchie, 2009)

The recreation of the career of Robert Downey Jr. as a bankable action hero continues with this expensive explosive epic that re-casts Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character as, well, a bankable action hero. It’s a conceit that works grandly for considerable chunks of Guy Ritchie’s period production, but an unfortunate feeling remains that such a literary icon as Sherlock Holmes shouldn’t be shoehorned into James Bondian conventions or Indiana Jones-ish set-piece progressions.

The thinking behind this is understandable (or elementary) – who wants to see stiff sitting room scenes filled with exposition? Audiences want high octane action and that’s what they’re going to get here. Holmes was a martial arts master in Doyle’s books and short stories so that’s an element Ritchie and Downey Jr. run with. Through stylized breakdowns of his fighting strategies we get into Holmes’ head blow by blow. However the attempts to get into his head clue by clue are less successful.

The movie begins with Holmes and trusty sidekick Watson (Jude Law) preventing a human sacrifice by the dark treacherous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). Though Blackwood is jailed and sentenced to death, he still inspires fear with threatening prophecies of terror that he’ll orchestrate from beyond the grave. 3 days after he’s hanged and pronounced dead by Watson, he appears to have torn through the walls of his tomb and is back among the living. Holmes is, of course, back on his trail with distractions such as Rachel McAdams as the infamous Irene Adler and Watson’s bromance blocking bride to be (Kelly Reilly) muddying up the waters.

Muddy is apt for it’s a muddled mess of a mystery – a fast paced muddle, but a muddle all the same. For most moviegoers it won’t matter as there is fun to be had with Downey Jr.’s almost contagious satisfied smirk of a performance. His accent is much the same as it was in CHAPLIN (that is – not very convincing but still adequate) and his jovial demeanor does much to carry the film through dark passages dealing with black magic and a perplexing plot to overthrow Parliament. Law doesn’t make much of an impression as he just seems to be along for the ride and his fiancée subplot could be dropped completely with no complaints. Strong’s steely faced Blackwood is a worthy adversary, but his evil plans fail to fascinate making the murky mechanics of the third act bog down the proceedings.

Its ending obviously broadcasts that SHERLOCK HOLMES wants to be the first of a franchise, club sandwiched between IRONMAN efforts, primed for event movie seasons but I pray that it’s a one off. Downey Jr. is one of the most capable and interesting actors working today, but I fear his hipster appeal will make for major miscasting in future famous icon reboots: Robert Downey Jr. as Tarzan/The Shadow/Buck Rogers/etc. Maybe I’m being too cynical, but as much as I enjoyed particular parts of this film and would like to write it off as pure escapism, I couldn’t quite escape the notion that it’s a glorified waste.

More later…

SLEUTH & A Few New DVD Reviews

“The film was a sadd’ning bore, ’cause I wrote it 10 times or more.”
– David Bowie from the song “Life On Mars”

Bowie’s couplet above could serve as perfect criticism of the following film. I wanted to see it on the big screen last Fall but it played for only a week at a local theater and was roundly panned. I loved the original so I put it in my queue and wished for the best. Well, what I got was the worst:

SLEUTH (Dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 2007)

This entire production screams “high concept!” It’s a slick streamlined remake of the much beloved 1972 mystery which pitted Sir Laurence Olivier as a wealthy novelist against Michael Caine as a gold digging hair salon manager who is having an affair with Olivier’s wife. The high concept here is that Caine now plays the wealthy novelist and Jude Law, fresh from remaking ALFIE, again steps into Caine’s old shoes as the young gold digger. The gothic old house of the original has been transformed into a high tech palace with surveillance cameras and monitors in every corner – a cold and sterile museum of a house that Caine says was designed by his wife but it’s hard not to think he took some notes from Batman. Taking the concept higher is a new screenplay by noted playwright Harold Pinter which throws out all of the original’s dialogue and replaces it with even more twisted mental trickery. Branaugh’s sharply stylised direction inhabits every frame – the film actually looks shiny like an expensive ad in GQ magazine. So why doesn’t any of it work?

Hmmm, It’s not because it’s ridiculous, contrived, and over the top – the original was all those things and even more unbelievable in its conceit. The conceit being that these 2 men perform a series of double crossing mindgames over the never seen wife. There is one giant plot device that I won’t give away, though if you watch the trailer you can probably guess what it is, that is handled so horribly it should have been discarded all together. Caine has sleepwalked through better material than this but he does give it the old college try. Jude Law, is well…just what I expected – glib but hiding overwhelming insecurities but just like with Caine we never believe these are people with lives outside of this movie. They’re both constrained by their empty caricatures.

Like I said before – the film looks great, the actors are apt, and the direction is solid so I guess I can only really blame the script. Pinter’s dialogue is simplistic yet over-reaching – he uses all of the original’s hot premise points but retains none of their humorous charms. If the plan was to break down a grand theatrical melodrama down into a souless modern psychological thriller package with as much depth as a Tom and Jerry cartoon then Pinter is indeed a genius as he’s been often called. With all due respect to the Nobel Laureate, the original was an amusing trifle; this is high concept tripe. The 2007 model SLEUTH only has 2 good things going for it: 1. At 86 minutes it is an hour shorter than the original so at least they didn’t try and stretch what was already as thin as Shelley Duvall as Olive Oil. 2. The prospect that because this film was a critical and financial failure we can be spared any future Jude Law remakes of Michael Caine movies. Though come to think of it though, in the right hands Law could maybe pull off DEATHTRAP – if they stick to the original script, that is.

This next film isn’t new but I’m writing about it because there is a recent English language remake that just came to my area. It’s not playing in Chapel Hill however possibly because in the light of the tragic death of UNC student Eve Carson it could be seen to be in bad taste. Hearing that the remake is a shot-by-shot replay of the original from a decade earlier by the same director I got it from NetFlix and do strongly feel that yes the timing would be bad. Not sure though, if the time will ever be right for:

FUNNY GAMES (Dir. Michael Haneke, 1997)

In a calm soothing manner we are introduced to a cultured Austrian family (A husband and wife played by Ulrigh Mühe and Suzanne Lothar with their son played by Stefan Clapczynski) arriving at their lake house. 10 minutes into the film a couple of creepy young men dressed in white clothes with white gloves appear – the first (Frank Giering) innocently asks to borrow some eggs from Lothar which he supposedly accidentally breaks. He asks for more, breaks those too and an awkward confrontation occurs when the second (Arno Frisch) assaults Mühe with a golf club severely injuring his right leg. The home invasion is in full swing now with the family taken hostage and a series of sadistic mind games with rules and deadly consequences set in place by Frisch. Frisch “breaks the frame” early on by winking at the camera then later asking the audience to bet on the fate of his victims: “You’re on their side so who will you bet with?”

Many critics have labeled FUNNY GAMES – high art disguised as torture porn (or vice versa) and point out that we don’t actually see much of the violence because it occurs off screen. That may be true but there is still enough voyeuristic violence with screaming and blood in sight to disturb not just the squeamish. Haneke has said that he intended to make “a film about the portrayal of violence in the media, in movies… an attempt to provide an analysis of the work within the work.” I’m afraid that even with that lofty purpose and artsy asides to the camera we still just have another violent piece of work here – a pretentious and tedious one at that. Repeatedly the suffering family asks their tormentors “why?” – “Don’t forget the entertainment value” Giering responds and it is the only thing that ever comes close to a sincere answer. The entertainment value of this pointless exercise however is non-existent. If Haneke is making a statement critical of the mass consumption of media violence and he is ideally chastising viewers with his own work then as someone identifying themselves as Fuckhead on a Onion A.V. Club message board * asks “I guess the way to pass this film’s test is to not see it? Is that it?” Yes, that’s it. I failed that test by watching the original. But I expect to pass with flying colors when it comes to the remake.

* Actually from the comments on the article “A funny response to Funny Games” by Steve Hyden (March 17, 2008)

I AM LEGEND (Dir. Francis Lawrence, 2007)

I was planning on skipping this flick but some friends thought it would be good mindless fun one recent eve. They were right – this Will Smith fighting zombies spectacle (big enough to warrant an IMAX release) isn’t too dumb for fun. Mind you, it considers itself to be too highbrow to call them zombies or mutants – they’re called The Infected or Darkseekers. Based on the 1954 novel (which took place in the 70’s) by Richard Matheson, the story is simple – in 2012, 3 years after most of the world’s population is hit by a massive plague a man (Smith) who believes he may be the last alive on Manhattan Island struggles to find a cure for the virus. Dodging constant attacks, Smith talks to himself and his trusty dog Sam (who you just know won’t make til the end) as he stockpiles food, broadcasts radio transmissions in hope of finding other survivors, and has several flashes to backstory about his departed family. He captures Infected ones in order to test treatments and thinks he may have found a possible anti-dote.

Of course, this plot seems designed as an elaborate laundry line on which to hang a series of immense bombastic set pieces including a scene involving the Brooklyn Bridge which cost $5 million (the most expensive scene ever filmed in the city at the time according to Wikipedia). The CGI demon dogs and Darkseekers provide some genuine scares, while the shoot-out scenes (as one-sided as shoot-outs can be) are actually fairly compelling. Despite the sci-fi action formula limits, Smith is able to build upon his acting standard set by THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS last year and again shows he can carry, pretty much on his shoulders alone, another overblown blockbuster with poise. Don’t get me wrong though – it’s no movie masterpiece; I AM LEGEND is a brisk 1 hour and 40 min. piece of populist entertainment – nothing more. So just put a cork in your brainhole and sit back and enjoy.

More later…

The Failure Of The ALL THE KING’S MEN Remake

The IMDB reported this the other day –

“Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Steve Zaillian was clearly stunned by the critical and box-office failure of his latest film,
ALL THE KING’S MEN, which opened with only $3.8 million in its debut and fell out of the top-ten in its second weekend. Zaillian told the Los Angeles Times that it was “like getting hit by a truck. … I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe down the road I’ll figure it out”.

Well maybe I can help figure it out – Since it is leaving my home town theater after a barely attended 2 ween run I decided to see the movie last night and it is one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen!! Not since I almost went into a coma watching HOFFA has my time in the theater been so deadly dull. Hard to say exactly where Zaillian and crew went wrong – it is well photographed, the screenplay hits the right points, and the cast is A-list (Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, etc.) – it just doesn’t work. Most critics have blamed Sean Penn’s overwrought performance and yes it is true he does deserve to be one of the patients in Monty Python’s Hospital For The Over-Acting sketch but the blame lies elsewhere I believe.

I got the original 1949 version of ALL THE KING’S MEN (Dir. Robert Rossen) from Netflix and watched it this morning. It had won the best picture Oscar and for good reason – it is a good well crafted interesting exercise in good taste and restraint. Everything the re-make tries in vain for the original accomplishes with much more class. I’ll take Broderick Crawford’s believably flawed Willie Stark over Sean Penn’s wretched over-the-top spastic Willie Stark any day.

So it was just another unnecessary remake. I can’t think of one worthwhile remake that has been produced lately. Can you?

More later…

Movies And Books, Movies And Books,,,

Pony-boy (C. Thomas Howell) – “All I did was walk home from the movie.”
Darrel (Patrick Swayze) – “Movies and books, movies and books! I wish you could concentrate on something else once in a while”
Sodapop (Rob Lowe) – “Try girls and cars. Works for me.”

THE OUTSIDERS : THE COMPLETE NOVEL (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola 1983/2005)

A recent Time magazine article titled Books Vs. Movies (I’d link it but it’s premium content – greedy corporate bastards!) again put up the ancient argument – “which is better” in the context of such event movies coming out before this years end like THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA as well as the already released HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE, SHOPGIRL, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and even WALK THE LINE which was based on 2 Johnny Cash’s autobiographies – Man in Black and CASH – The Autobiography.

I’ve only seen a few of the movies I mentioned above (SHOPGIRL and WALK THE LINE) but lately I have noticed I have a tendency to read or re-read the book before I see the new movie version. Anticipating CAPOTE a couple of months ago I bought a paperback of In Cold Blood and also watched the 1967 movie – I guess as a way of doing some homework on the subject or maybe just a geeky habit of wanting to know all the source material available. Sigh. This makes me recall that back in ’92 I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X months before Spike Lee’s epic cinematic rendition hit the screens. Jeez! I guess I got it bad.

Anyway the old cliche “the movie is always better than the book” while often true there are a number of notable exceptions like say BEING THERE, THE GODFATHER and FIGHT CLUB. Many people love certain movies never knowing there was a book and vice versa. I for years never knew that HAROLD AND MAUDE was originally a novella written by Colin Higgins who wrote the screenplay for the film.

A few movies I’ve seen lately that were based on books:

COLD MOUNTAIN (Dir. Anthony Minghella, 2003) – Yes, I know just about everyone read it at the end of the last decade and then saw the movie a couple years ago but I only did both recently. The book was elegantly written and the details were almost too much to absorb but I enjoyed it immensely. The movie not so much. While well cast (Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renee Zelleweger, Philip Seymour Hoffman were all perfect for their roles) was ickily glossy and stupidly reduced the love story elements into romance novel fodder. They TITANIC-ized it!

(Dir. Francis Ford Coppola 1983/2005) I read the S.E. Hinton book of this way back in Jr. High School in the early 80’s like most people in my demographic I guess and was interested to hear that Coppola had restored footage to the movie to make it closer to the book. It does work a little better though despite its boys-club cast (Swayze, Cruise, Lowe, Estevez, etc) its still the feminine cheesy melodrama it will always be in our hearts. Or at least my demographic’s hearts.

THE WARRIORS (Dir. Walter Hill, 1979) This is another one that I didn’t realize til now was based on a book (by Sol Yurick) until recently. Though it was originally a pulp novel the new director’s cut has wipes and transitions added to make the film look more like a comic book – characters morph into still frame cartoons contained in black border boxes at the end of sequences and then we are whisked away to another panel. The effect doesn’t bother me but on this here internet there are many fan-boy complaints about Lucas-like tinkering and some such spoiling of a masterpiece. Yeah, its like someone painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa, sure. Whatever.

Now for another reliable fimbabble feature which fits right into this film/book shiznit:


Yes, again we take another movie notable for its soundtrack and give you a musical play by play. This particular film is especially notable because it features just one artist (Cat Stevens) kinda like THE GRADUATE with Simon and Garfunkel guiding the way – sure , we’ll go with that –

The film begins with Harold Chasen (Bud Cort) preparing to hang himself in the elegant din of his mother’s mansion. He puts on a record on an old-stlye phonograph. It is “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens. As this a song not on any Cat Stevens record – written for the film no less – Harold is very privileged.

“On The Road To Find Out” accompanies and introduces Harold’s funeral fetish. “I Wish, I Wish” concludes the sequence.

“Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #1” (performer unknown according to IMDB) plays as another Haorld suicide attempt – drowning face down in a pool as his mother swims laps.

“Miles From Nowhere” sets another funeral scene – this one rain drenched. Just as that tune fades and the congregation exits the cemetery with Maude and her bright yellow umbrella leading the way “Tea For The Tillerman” plays. Jeez, Cat was racking ’em up with on this flick! (Well, not really – there was no officially released soundtrack)

Another spiritual Stevens song – “I Think I See The Light” lifts us away from Harold’s successful sabotage of his mother’s dating set-up to Maude’s artistic nude modeling.

As Harold and Maude (Ruth Gordon) get acquainted “Where Do The Children Play” – another passionate Cat tune sets the tone. Instrumental snatches from it play over the next few scenes.

Back at her place – after an emotional moment concerning Maude’s mysterious past our protagonists engage in a sing-a-long of “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” on Maude’s player piano which amusingly plays after she gets up to dance. Like “Don’t Be Shy” this song was written for the movie and is definitely its unofficial theme song. A piano version sans vocal decorates the next scene as Harold’s mother presents him with a new Jaguar.

Johann Strauss’s “On The Beautiful Blue Danube”(again, performer unknown) accompanies a sweet night time close dance by Harold and Maude again at her place.

“If You Want To Sing Out…” again serenades our movie couple in a montage – Harold’s Jaquar now souped-up Hearse-style tools down roads through the countryside, Harold and Maude dancing and frolicking in the sun, and it nicely concludes with a tender moment in a junk-yard at dusk.

The energetic jamming finish of “I Think I See The Light” which faded out earlier now emerges again to illustrate Harold’s now consumated relationship with Maude. In morning light coming through the window of Maude’s abode Harold, in a love-daze blows bubbles while she sleeps.

Another instrumental of “If You Want To Sing Out…” now played on a banjo punctuates Harolds confident walk away from his Mother’s bedroom after telling her that he intends to marry Maude.

“Trouble” powerfully fills out the final sequence which cuts back and forth from Harold in Jaquar/Herse recklessly driving the winding roads of previous scenes and the ambulance drive and Maude’s admittance to the hospital on the night of her death – unbearably untimely in Harold’s eyes.

“If You Want To Sing Out…” of course takes us through the end credits right after a now newly inspired Harold plucks a few chords on his Banjo – a gift from Maude – right after discarding the Herse/Jaquar – a gift from his mother – in a particularly dramatic fashion.

More later…