Monthly Archives: January 2010

Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

the imaginarium of doctor parnassus one sheetIf you’ve never seen a Terry Gilliam film before, you’ll be baffled and likely frustrated by the storytelling style and visual exaggeration that are trademarks of his weird and wonderful movies.  A former member of the comedy team Monty Python, a peculiarly English sense of humor suffuses his films too, from Time Bandits to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to Brazil. In the spirit of disclosure, I am a big fan of Gilliam’s work and have looked forward eagerly to the cinematic release of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and really enjoyed it.

A more accurate title for the film would be “The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam”, because so much of the film takes place in a trippy, surreal world that borrows many story and visual elements from his earlier work. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an immortal storyteller who helps keep the universe on track. At one point he explains: “we tell the internal story of the world, without which the universe would cease to exist.”  Gilliam is just that sort of storyteller, taking on profound, deep and challenging questions of good and evil, of truth and lies, of real and surreal.
The imaginarium itself is a looking glass, a gateway to another world where your dreams are realized and you can wander through your fantasies and most astonishing wishes. For some people it’s a dark place, a spooky forest, while for others it’s a children’s dream park of candy and rolling green hills. It’s also a gateway into Doctor Parnassus’ mind and a place where visitors must choose between the path of good and the path of evil, as added by Satan (called “Mr. Nick” and played by Tom Waits).
The film gained much notoriety because gifted young actor Heath Ledger (who plays Tony) died during the production, leaving this as his final work and Gilliam with a half-made movie. Rather than scrap it, however, Ledger’s death was woven into the storyline and at various points we see Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell as Tony, within the unreal world of the Imaginarium itself. It works surprisingly well, and when we see these other Tony’s doing double-takes at their reflections, we understand the confusion. At one point Tony/Farrell is talking to Valentina (Lily Cole) and she looks at him, puzzled, and asks “Who are you?” to which he answers “use your imagination”.
That’s a splendid bit of advice for anyone who is going to see this amazing, albeit slightly unpolished gem from Terry Gilliam: to truly appreciate The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, you too will be required to use your imagination, in a way quite unlike just about any other film you’ll see this year.

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Review: A Serious Man

a serious man one sheetWhen does a dark satire about life transition into a marathon of bad luck and suffering by a hapless, spineless man?  Though I’m sure that’s not what the Coen Brothers intended when they created A Serious Man, that’s the experience I had when I watched the film.

A Serious Man is about the trials and tribulations of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), and it’s an ostensibly retelling of the story of Job from the Old Testament. Bad things happen, then worse things happen, then even worse things happen, all while Larry hangs on to his faith in Judaism. If you go back to the Bible and read the actual Book of Job, however, the story is about a bet between God and the Devil, where Job is the sucker who has more and more bad things happen, all as he retains his faith in the Lord. In the end, his family are killed, his servants are killed, all of his livestock dies, but somehow he still praises God and God ultimately rewards his unbending faith.
It’s an interesting and thought-provoking story and would make for a good film (as it has done in the past), but that’s not what happens in A Serious Man because Larry doesn’t really have any sort of crisis of faith and the ending most assuredly doesn’t have him seeing any sort of reward from God for his faith. Instead, we’re left being rather amazed at what a spineless loser Larry is, unable to stand up for himself, unable to value himself in his family and without any self respect at all. This is comedy?

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Review: The Lovely Bones

the lovely bones one sheetWhen someone is murdered, their spirit lingers on, observing and trying to influence the course of justice, a ghost seeking revenge or simply to experience the karmic balance that we hope will transpire. But what of the ghost during this period of time, what’s their experience and what if there is no peace, no justice, nothing but someone who refuses to let go, who refuses to accept that they have died?

That’s the basic story behind The Lovely Bones, an ethereal and moving film by Peter Jackson based on the best-selling book by Alice Sebold and starring the lovely and haunting Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon, the victim of the crime.
Set in the mid-1970’s, it contrasts the deep love of a father, Jack (Mark Wahlberg), against the naivity of the times, where when a child went missing no-one thought she was abducted because “people believed this sort of thing couldn’t happen.” Yet it does, and it’s the creepy but unthreatening neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci) who commits the crime.
Within a few minutes, we know who the murderer is and how the crime transpired and are symbolically brought on the same journey that Susie is, stuck in the “in between” that’s not quite heaven. We hope that that George doesn’t get away with the crime and despair when everyone misses the clues he leaves.
I found some interesting parallels with the fascinating What Dreams May Come, another film that takes on the challenge of visualizing the afterlife, but The Lovely Bones stands alone as a moving exploration of karma, justice and belief. It’s an intense film though the ending was weak, but perhaps that’s the point of the story after all, that justice doesn’t come from detectives and investigations, it doesn’t even come from devoted parents, but rather from the cosmic balance of all things.

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Review: The Book of Eli

the book of eli one sheet

The 23rd Psalm of the Bible, in case you haven’t memorized the entire Old Testament, goes like this: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies…
The 23rd Psalm is also the inspiration for the dark, moody film The Book of Eli, and though it takes quite a while to move beyond its Mad Max roots and get into the main storyline, it is ultimately a dark, modern religious parable.
Denzel Washington is the main character, Eli, and he’s spent thirty years slowly walking through a vast American wasteland, carrying the precious Book of Eli, a mysterious leather-clad tome that he dutifully reads every day and hides from anyone else who might see it. He walks into a cliché post-apocalyptic bar full of ruffians owned by scroungy tough guy Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has spent years questing for The Book. And so begins the battle of good and evil that is at the heart of the film.
The premise is interesting and as a parable, a story told in broad sweeping strokes, The Book of Eli is reasonably satisfying, but it’s also deeply flawed with poor pacing, unceasingly gloomy cinematography and surprisingly poor acting on the part of just about everyone in the cast. It’s the cinematographic equivalent of hard Christian rock, awkwardly balanced between the religious message and the desire to be an aggressive post-apocalyptic film. It doesn’t quite succeed on either front.

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Review: The Spy Next Door

the spy next door one sheet

Modern writing is all about disclosure, so in that spirit, let me disclose that I’m a lukewarm Jackie Chan fan. He’s been in some terrific action and comedy films, notably Rush Hour and The Forbidden Kingdom, but he’s also been in a lot of dreck, movies that are just downright stupid, like the Rush Hour sequels, Shanghai Knights, and the worst of the lot, Around the World in 80 Days. He’s a successful action star, but not so good at picking projects.
Which brings us to his newest film, The Spy Next Door. One of the first releases of 2010 it’s positioned as a sort of kung fu version of Kindergarten Cop, where the running shtick is that he’s a super-spy with great martial arts skills, but his cute neighbor Gillian (Amber Valletta) and her three children think he’s a bumbling salesman. The kids, in fact, are puzzled by why Gillian is dating Bob (Chan), as are we viewers, because there’s absolutely zero chemistry between the two of them on screen.
The fundamental problem with The Spy Next Door is that it’s more a Jackie Chan movie than a G-rated family film, which is what it appears they started out making. Comic violence is marginally acceptable in a children’s action film, but there’s a lot of violence in this film, including Jacking slamming a bad guy face down into a coffee table in one scene, and the kids seriously injuring other bad guys in other scenes. What the heck? That’s why it got a “PG” rating, I’m sure.
There’s a storyline of sorts, but it’s rather incidental to the stunts and action sequences, very much a trademark of a Jackie Chan movie, and in this case, it doesn’t work. I compare it to the witty Robert Rodriguez film Shorts (see my review) and the difference is that there’s no real sense of style, no sense of humor, no narrative cohesion to make this newer film hold together. The most amusing part of the film is the bloopers during the closing credits, which is most assuredly not a good sign.

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Review: Armored

armored one sheet
Ever wonder what kind of guy drives an armored car full of thousands – if not millions – of dollars worth of cash, securities, checks, credit card transaction receipts, etc?  Yeah, I never did either, but that’s the environment that Armored presents us with: a bunch of edgy, tough-guy losers who somehow have ended up as employees of Eagle Shield Security.

Chief tough guy is Baines (Lawrence Fishburn), whose first on-screen scene has him lovingly gazing at a rifle and saying “that’s what I’m talking about, M4-Vanilly Scattergun. State of the art, BLAM!” and pretending to shoot one of his colleagues. The main characters in the film are Mike Cochrone (Matt Dillon), and Ty (Columbus Short), who is new on the job and learning the ropes.
Ty, it becomes somewhat clear, is the son of a guy who was part of Eagle Shield Security, and he’s in financial straits ever since returning from a stint in the military. Without any warning or lead in, Cochrone turns to Ty in an early scene and says “We’re not going to let the bank take your house. We’ll think of something.”
What we have is a poorly plotted rehash of Training Day or any of a thousand other cop movies, but this time with armored car drivers. It has all the attitude, poorly lit scenes with gritty settings, moody music and tough-guy camaraderie of the genre, even to the obligatory serious tough-guys-bonding toast by Cochrone to his partners in a blue-collar bar.  I like the genre, but found Armored tedious, predictable and highly unengaging. 

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The Best Films of 2009

I’ve spent the time to rant about the films I saw last year that I thought were the worst of the bunch, not just middling experiences, but genuinely “how on Earth did they ever raise the money to make this abomination?” movies where they either started out okay and slowly collapsed on their own weight (like Knowing) or were daft from the get-go (like Transformers 2).

The worst of the bunch, though, must have been Land of the Lost. When it was rewritten as a so-called star vehicle for Will Ferrell, the writing team managed to take a sweet if shlocky TV series about a Dad, older son and younger girl mysteriously thrust back to a parallel world that included both dinosaurs and the mysterious Sleestaks and turn it into a modern drug and sex innuendo laced mess that not only failed with critics but also turned out to be a failure at the box office too. 
Okay, okay, you can read more of my worst films here: The Worst Films of 2009.
So what about the flip side of the coin?  What films did I think exemplified the best of cinema, either as pure entertainment, as thought-provoking narrative, or simply as something that captured my imagination or piqued my curiosity?
Let’s see…

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The Worst Films of 2009

2009 was a big year: I started out as a film fan who went to the theater maybe once every 2-3 weeks and otherwise lazily waited until movies made it onto the premium cable channels before I saw them. Not a lack of motivation, just a busy life. Early in 2009 I started to write a series of columns for Linux Journal on how to create a Twitter queueing system and my example subject was film news. So birthed @FilmBuzz, a now-popular film news channel. 

I also met professional movie reviewer Christian Toto of What Would Toto Watch and we became friends. Generously, he kept inviting me to join him at film screenings and I started to understand a lot more about how the system worked “from the inside”, and saw a lot of interesting films. I’d sporadically written film reviews but decided that I’d leverage the growing popularity of FilmBuzz and created a film blog, Dave On Film.
Through tapping into my network of contacts, I was invited to submit a reviews to the Boulder Weekly, the largest circulation independent news weekly in the state of Colorado, and was also offered a reviewer’s slot in the electronic edition of Colorado Business Magazine. I continue to write for those two outlets and it’s a rare week when a review of two of mine aren’t helping (I hope!) people throughout the state figure out what films to see in a theater and what films to avoid like the proverbial plague.
Suffice to say, I started 2009 as another guy in the audience and end 2009 as a widely published film reviewer who has a stack of screener DVDs from major motion picture studios and a significant published body of work. Thank you all for your help along the way and for reading my blog and reviews: If they’ve helped you make even one smart choice to skip a clunker or see a film you’d otherwise have skipped, I’m doing my job!
The best news?  Since I am a film reviewer, this means I can indulge in the time-honored tradition of creating a best of list!  I didn’t limit myself numerically, however. Instead, I pored through a list of every film released in 2009 and constrained myself to films I’d actually seen, marking them as “terrible”, “excellent” or “somewhere in the middle”.
And… here’s the result, starting with the worst…

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