Imaginarium in Revolt (Weekly Links)

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week:

Crazy Heart. “Jeff Bridges is in the zone here, folks.”

Youth in Revolt. “Gets to go a little out there.”

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

A star-crossed production if ever there was one, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” is the kind of movie you want to root for, whatever its problems might be.

I did root for it. But it has problems.

Director Terry Gilliam had shot more than half of his picture in London in January 2008 when his star, Heath Ledger, died at the age of 28. Since Ledger had some scenes yet to film, it looked like the end of the movie. Thanks to a quirk in the film’s design, Gilliam actually figured out a way to complete the movie with other actors playing Ledger’s part—and make the shift seem logical. The sleight-of-hand, perfectly appropriate to a film about magic and trickery, is ingenious. The problems lie elsewhere.

The Imaginarium itself is some kind of traveling show housed in a carriage that looks like it belongs in the 19th century, not modern London. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an elderly gent with dubiously mystic powers. Against all economic logic, he keeps his sideshow afloat and maintains a staff of three. With him is his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and there’s also the youthful Anton (Andrew Garfield), who looks like a puppy when Valentina is around. Which is all the time.

Dr. Parnassus also employs a little person (Verne Troyer, from the “Austin Powers” pictures), who acts as his Shakespearian Fool, speaking truth to the supposed wise man. Gilliam seems tickled by Troyer’s personality, and the scenes between the doctor and his advisor are quite charming.

And Heath Ledger? He plays an amnesiac, rescued from hanging by the troupe. Maybe audiences in the future will have an easy time watching the scene in which his body is discovered swinging from a London bridge, but it’s an unsettling sight when his tragic death (an accidental overdose of prescription medication) is still very much in the public mind.

At various points people pass through a magic mirror in the Imaginarium, which transports them to unreal vistas—a plainer world than “Avatar,” but a similarly digitally-transformed idea. In those worlds, Ledger’s character is played by the tag team of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, who nobly step in to fill out the more fantastical sections of the storyline.

That story has Dr. Parnassus keeping ahead of the devil (Tom Waits), with whom he has struck a bargain some years earlier. It’s just a thread, and it’s just barely enough to keep the forward motion going. Otherwise, the movie is cluttered with Gilliam’s brand of visual hallucinations, some of which look like they’d fit into his old “Monty Python” animations. Since this is his strong suit, you’d better have a fondness for that kind of imagery.

Ledger’s performance is spirited, although he looks as confused as everybody else about what he’s doing (he’s an amnesiac, so some latitude is granted). His presence gives an already rather dark movie an overlay of unintended, persistent sadness.

Leap Year. “Oversized leprechauns, invariably adorable.”

The Sun. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The enigmatic figure of Emperor Hirohito comes under Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s microscope in “The Sun.” The view is penetrating.

Sokurov proved with “Moloch” (1999), which examined Hitler, that he is not suited to an ordinary film bio method. He works in a rarefied style, and in this film he distills the essence of Hirohito (and by extension, wartime Japan), by selecting a few key moments from inside the Emperor’s final days as a god.

A god: recall that Hirohito assumed divine status during his reign. He renounced this status only as the war was collapsing around Japan.

Issey Ogata, who plays Hirohito, is certainly human. Throughout his performance, he moves his mouth in a facial twitch that becomes almost hypnotizing in its grotesqueness. We see the Emperor inside his sheltered world, as he meets with desperate advisors and receives instructions on how to meet with the U.S. commander Douglas MacArthur (Robert Dawson).

We see just how sheltered Hirohito has been in the film’s great details. When a U.S. soldier waves him into a car, we see the Emperor hesitate. He appears uncertain about how to get into an ordinary automobile, just as later he looks puzzled at the prospect of opening a door for himself. The Emperor is at home, however, in a laboratory in his palace, where he contentedly examines little specimens of sea creatures in his guise as amateur marine biologist. That’s the movie’s premise in a nutshell, or possibly a sea shell: an articulate person, given to reciting poetry or pondering nature, who is fatally, disastrously removed from the consequences of his policies.

Except for a brief sequence in which Hirohito seems to be imagining the nightmare of a fire-bombing, World War II happens entirely off screen. Yet this gives us an even stronger sense that within these decorous rooms lie the causes of unthinkable bloodshed.

Sokurov’s style is not dramatic in the ordinary sense (although “The Sun” is much more accessible than the opaque “Moloch”), yet the accumulation of events gains force. Hirohito’s two discussions with General MacArthur are rife with issues of diplomacy and power. This style pays off in the final sequence, in which we finally meet the Emperor’s wife. It doesn’t tie up everything neatly, but it is devastating.

“The Sun” showed at film festivals in 2005. Perhaps it’s making the regular circuit now because of the strong reception to Sokurov’s “Alexandra” last year. Whatever the reason, this is a worthwhile film to be rescued from obscurity.

Strongman. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

In the world of documentary profiles, I suppose there’s one thing that connects the varied people on view: unless the movie is unauthorized, they’ve all agreed to allow their lives to be exposed, at length, for the camera. That alone sets them apart from many other folks.

Not hard to guess why Stanley Pleskun agreed. Stanley, who goes by the stage name “Stanless Steel,” wants to be a showbiz success at his particular talent. That talent is contained in the title of the film about him, “Strongman.” Stan insists he is the strongest man in the world at bending steel; he also lifts trucks off the ground, pounds nails into wood with his fists, and works hard at bending a penny with his fingers.

Stan shows up in various New Jersey parking lots and classrooms, and in one unexpected interlude, is sent to London to appear on a British variety show (where he lifts three people standing on a platform). It is difficult to perceive exactly what Stan hopes to build out of this, since the call for circus strongmen seems to have passed with some previous generation. Not only that, Stan has a curious lack of innate showmanship, the kind of savvy that would allow him to carry of this unlikely profession. This extends to his wife Barbara, who introduces her husband at his events. For people who dream of showbiz glory (we learn that Barbara once thought of making it big in modeling) and have presumably absorbed the usual share of TV in their lives, Stan and Barbara are remarkably tone-deaf to the basics of trying to put on some sort of show.

Even his name is wrong: “Stanless Steel” doesn’t scan right, as though someone thought of this basic pun without grasping the nonsensical sound of it. But the film focuses less on Stan’s occasional gigs than on his daily life with Barbara, his alcoholic brother, and Barbara’s shrewish sister, who lives with the couple—an ill-advised move under even the best of circumstances.

“Strongman” director Zachary Levy lays it all out there, from the zany shifts in mood between Stan and Barbara to Stan’s fumbled pep talks at classroom demonstrations (I’m pretty sure I heard him drop the f-bomb during one stunt).

I think Levy likes these people, but he certainly doesn’t protect them from themselves. There’s almost no common sense on display anywhere in this world; everybody seems to be floating in a funk of mutual encouragement and unsupported optimism. Although “Strongman” is consistently engrossing, it’s not an especially pleasant experience, because of that strange level of denial. You might find yourself wishing the filmmakers would step in and offer a few words of sensible advice to folks who could use some wise counsel.

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

I have often wondered why, if a great writer dies with a desk holding unproduced screenplays, somebody doesn’t pick out the good stuff and make a movie, staying really faithful to the original script.

Maybe there’s a reason. As proved by the recent “Serious Moonlight,” based on a script by the late Adrienne Shelly, sometimes things got put aside on purpose. And Shelly was no titan of world literature—but Tennessee Williams was. The author of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “The Glass Menagerie” left behind an original screenplay dating back to the 1950s, a typically Southern-fried number called “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.”

The film has been the pet project of the actress-filmmaker Jodie Markell, who directed it. While we owe her a debt for pursuing the property and bringing it to light, the plain fact is the movie isn’t very good. Although “Teardrop Diamond” was the only screenplay Williams wrote that wasn’t adapted from one of his plays, it nevertheless has a stagebound feeling about it. Most of the action is set during a grand 1920s party on a single decisive night.

At the center of the action is a typical Williams heroine, Fisher Willow, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Miss Willow can’t conform to the genteel behavior of the other Southern belles in the vicinity; she’s been schooled in gay Paree, and has some sort of wild streak anyway. The party in question is some kind of socially-significant debutante affair, and Willow must have an escort. Her reluctant chaperon is Jimmy (Chris Evans), a dubious choice: true, his grandpappy was a governor of Mississippi, but his drunken father has reduced the family to ground-level conditions.

So it’s quite an evening at the ball, capped by the fact that Fisher loses an expensive earring loaned her by her wealthy aunt (Ann-Margret, briefly). The evening stretches on, encounters are made, feelings are damaged, and in small but significant ways the courses of a handful of lives are altered. At least, that’s the idea that Tennessee Williams was pursuing. But the film is so stiff and unevenly acted, so reminiscent of a low-budget TV production, that it doesn’t feature well. It’s like a jewel missing its proper setting.

The usually excellent Bryce Dallas Howard seems at sea here, as though no consensus had gathered about why Fisher Willow moves through the world in her particular way. Her co-star, Chris Evans, who’s best known for his “Fantastic Four” calisthenics, actually comes across more confidently, as one of Williams’ uncertain males.

There’s a wonderful section during the party where Fisher goes to an upstairs room and has an encounter with an ailing lady, the details of which should be withheld. The lady is played by Ellen Burstyn, who (though she never gets out of bed) infuses the film with a vibrancy that it otherwise lacks. For a moment, you have a glimpse of how this project might have found its voice.

Issue #6 of Rotten hits the stores this week – a delirious rounding-off of a particularly horrifying arc. See the Rotten tab above for more info.