Monday, January 11, 2010

Disappointments from fine directors: The Lovely Bones and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Ah, what a bummer. Who wants to see movies by filmmakers you love and respect and find them wanting? Fortunately, I've got a couple "hey, that was better than I expected" reviews to write before doing This Week In Tickets.

There were comments from the staff of the theater about how not many people were showing up for the screening of The Lovely Bones, either the one I went to or the one the previous night. Not a great omen for the new film opening Friday from the man who did Lord of the Rings and King Kong. It's really flying under the radar, in part because it's not the sort of big crowd-pleaser that his last decade of work, and I imagine critical reception hasn't been that great. But, in a way, maybe that'll be good for Jackson; I suspect that becoming known as the Big Epic Guy must in some ways be a burden; after this, I suspect there will be less pressure on whatever his follow-up may be.

And then there's Gilliam. It's been a while since the last movie he did that I really like. I didn't hate Tideland or even The Brothers Grimm the way others did, but they haven't been great stuff. And Gilliam doesn't excite me that much any more, even when he finally does get a new movie made.

I suspect that it's in part because part of the initial attraction to guys like Gilliam is that their work initially seems new and different from anything else, and we're initially attracted to the novelty as well as the actual substance and style. Not entirely, but when you know that a new Terry Gilliam movie is more or less guaranteed to be grimy misery with an escape into a fantasy world or that Tim Burton is going to give Johnny Depp a stupid haircut... Well, unless you really like those things specifically, the initial excitement of one's first Gilliam dystopia or stupid Johnny Depp haircut fades as you start to wonder if that is really all they've got.

Is it unfair to want that, though? There is certainly enough of a core audience out there that likes what Gilliam brings, and is it fair to expect someone to reinvent themselves every time out?

The Lovely Bones

* * (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2010 in AMC Boston Common #18 (preview screening)

Though I tend to think that attempting to fit a movie into a specific genre and then being frustrated when it fails to fit there nicely speaks more ill of the viewer's inflexibility than the movie itself, I admit to falling into the trap with The Lovely Bones. Peter Jackson is too good a filmmaker for it to leave me screaming "what do you want from me, movie? What do you want?", but the many things it tries to do are at cross-purposes, and none wind up done well enough.

We are introduced to Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) in her own words. In late 1973, she was just starting high school, loved photography, had a crush on senior Ray Singh (Reece Ritchie). She was bright, and once saved her brother's life with her quick thinking. And she was murdered by a neighbor, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who fails to ignite suspicion in detective Len Fenerman (Michael Imperioli). The loss of Susie is devastating to her family; parents Jack (Mark Wahlberg) and Abigail (Rachel Weisz) can barely function, and Grandma Lynn (Susan Sarandon), who is something of a handful herself, comes to take charge. But Susie's not completely gone, it seems; she's in an in-between world defined by her imagination, watching those left behind, occasionally with another girl, Holly (Nikki SooHoo), for company.

So, what is this thing? It's not a murder mystery - we know who did it too early - and it's not really a crime story, despite how Jack and Susie's sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) play detective later on. It's got big, flashy elements that peg it as a soft story of the supernatural, sometimes crossing into the thriller category but more often the type that offers a warm view of the great mysteries but scrupulously avoids any specific religious affiliation. Mostly, it's about a family grieving, and not well, with the Susie scenes perhaps meant as a metaphor for how she is still with them but not. The thing is, a number of them don't make any sense unless they are happening literally, which opens the door to any number of other paranormal situations being in play. Indeed, at one point toward the end of the movie, a character actually seems to pause, recognize that the emotional resolution has just occurred, and then visually shift gears because, hey, murder investigation still going on. And the less said about how that is wrapped up, the better.

There's other problems. A similar one is the fantasy world that Susie inhabits; it's beautifully realized, as you might expect from the filmmaker behind Heavenly Creatures, King Kong, and the Lord of the Rings movies. But this is the sort of thing where each image needs to be meaningful and specific, and while there's a sense that Jackson is trying for that, he seldom manages much more than "pretty". Jackson also engages in some heavy-handed foreshadowing in a couple of scenes early on, although Mark Wahlberg is a common denominator there (I seem to recall him seeming like a guy with a bright future at one point, but it's becoming hard to remember why).

He's just part of an ensemble, though, and some of the other members are excellent. Saoirse Ronan, for instance, is fantastic. It's not the same sort of showy part she had in Atonement, but in just the opening few minutes, she's got us thinking that we know this kid and sort of adore her; she certainly never lets us down during the afterlife sequences. Then there's Stanley Tucci, creepy as heck playing the killer, all his usual quirk and affect drained away until there's just a bland monstrousness to Harvey. On the other end of the spectrum, Susan Sarandon livens up every scene she's in.

And despite all the different ways that the story is pushed and pulled, Jackson does a good job of keeping the audience's interest. He's got a good eye for detail even outside the special effects scenes, and does a good job with pacing. A story that is, more than anything, about mourning can either seem to drag or sell the emotion short. His sure hand is frequently able to give us hope that he's going somewhere with all of this, and make individual scenes well worth watching.

Those individual scenes never add up to a whole movie, though. Maybe in the original book, there's enough detail and room for elaboration to connect all of the story's facets so that they work together. In the film, though, the bits of the story often seem to be at cross-purposes, and it's hard to feel anything when the rules are just going to change a few minutes later.

Also at HBS

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

* * (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2010 in AMC Harvard Square #1 (first-run)

Ordinarily, when good people make a bad movie, there's a tendency to hunt for where things went wrong. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus offers an obvious and logical culprit: The sudden death of its star, Heath Ledger, midway through filming. But for all that the contortions that writer/director Terry Gilliam had to go through to work around that tragic event, it seems likely that Parnassus would have been a mess whether Ledger were able to complete the film or not.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) has a traveling show with one attraction - a magic mirror behind which those who enter find dreamscapes partly created by Parnassus, although Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) lurks to tempt them off the safe path so that he can steal their souls. He runs it with old friend Percy (Verne Troyer), daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), and runaway Anton (Andrew Garfield). They're poor, but mostly a happy family, at least on the surface. Underneath, Anton nurses a crush on Lily, Lily fantasizes about a more conventional life, and Parnassus and Percy fret about the debt to Mr. Nick that will come due on Lily's fast-approaching sixteenth birthday. Does the amnesiac they rescue from under a bridge (Heath Ledger) bring solutions or more problems?

Audiences familiar with Terry Gilliam's work will see his fingerprints on the film almost from the first frame, for good and ill. Parnassus's show is the sort of grimy, ill-maintained environment that he always seems to start from. The fantasy sequences begin as two-dimensional, clearly artificial environments before coming to fully-rendered life. There's an underlying mythology that speaks to the power of imagination and storytelling, although the emphasis is on the things that Gilliam clearly values most - sweeping imagery and broad ideas, as opposed to a great deal of plot or detail.

Gilliam is known - infamous, even - for presiding over troubled productions, with the travails sometimes self-inflicted (I think he badly needs a producing partner who can reign him in, say "you'll lose the audience with this"). That's not the case this time, but while the shooting schedule offered up an intriguing solution - the bulk of the scenes left to film took place within the magic mirror, so they had Ledger's Tony played by different actors on "the other side", it winds up being an awkward compromise. The three actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell) are made up to look as much like Ledger as possible, so they often only seem sort of different, even though that is now a plot point. It's just noticeable enough to be distracting but not exploited enough to be significant. There's a sequence at the beginning that seems grafted on to demonstrate that the mirror can reveal this two-faced nature in people, but it winds up dragging out the movies first act and making it somewhat repetitive.

Of course, it may have been there from the start, with the face-changing added later. For all that having to make changes halfway through is the most obvious culprit in the film faltering, it's far from the only one. The final trip behind the mirror is a mess not because it features Colin Farrell rather than Heath Ledger - I actually enjoyed Farrell's performance more than Ledger's, though it's odd that the build-up and the climax of that character's arc are delivered in such different styles - but because it seems like Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown have no idea what they want it to be about, and it shines a light on all of the script's other faults. It can't decide whether or not Valentina's or Tony's soul is the one in the balance, and shows just what sort of short shrift Valentina has gotten over the course of the film, despite it being her story as much as anybody's. Characters are tossed aside in ways that leave the audience unsure how to feel, because it's not clear how permanent what happens on the other side is. And whether a character is viewed as a screw-up, opportunist, or monster rests on whether or not the audience catches some easily-overlooked comments to which it is not given time to react. The movie is problematic but forgiveably so beforehand, but devolves into a real mess by the end.

That's doubly frustrating, because there is actually plenty to praise. Gilliam has some heady, cool ideas with visuals to match - I love the monks who believe that they must recite the story of the world in order for the universe to keep going, for instance. Some of the Imaginarium imagery is the most joyful, delighted-with-creating things he has put on-screen since Baron Munchausen. There are some great surprises in the cast: Lily Cole, for instance, and the pairing of Christopher Plummer and Verne Troyer creates some great odd-couple banter. Colin Farrell offers a welcome reminder of how good he can be given the chance to play a good part, rather than fake an American accent in a bland action movie (Jude Law also improves upon Ledger's frequently dull, mumbly performance).

It's a shame that this winds up being Ledger's last movie; maybe we can just agree that partials don't count and say he finished on The Dark Knight? It's also a bit unfortunate that it disguises the other problems with the movie, as that lays the blame on people like Ledger, Farrell, and Law who really don't deserve it.

Also at HBS

1 comment:

storkclub said...

The Lovely Bones was OK for the special effects though and Stanley Tucci was just terrific. I dunno if its right for the director Peter Jackson