Heath Ledger died halfway through the filming of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but to director Terry Gilliam´s credit, you´d never know anything was amiss from the final product. While it can criticized for problems with story or pacing or tone (as can – let´s face it – most of the director´s oeuvre), Parnassus is an undeniable return to form for Gilliam, a fantastically imaginative piece of work that stands in direct opposition his previous picture, the painfully indulgent Tideland.
Ledger stars as Tony, who is discovered hanging from a London bridge by a travelling caravan of performers in a show, which includes Anton (Andrew Garfield), Percy (Verne Troyer), Valentina (Lily Cole), and Valentina´s father, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). They save him from his fate (a flute lodged in his throat also helps), and a convenient case of amnesia keeps him from answering any questions. Parnassus can´t be bothered with Tony at first, but soon comes to believe he was sent to save them.
Sent by who? Save them from what? The plot of Doctor Parnassus is a thick molasses of wayward tangents that always seem to leave us in mid-thought: there are at least a few too many ideas going on here. At worst, the plot here is a needless distraction; at best, it keeps Gilliam in check.
But let me backtrack. The Doctor Parnassus show is a corny theatrical affair that parks itself outside of a nightclub, appeals to some drunks with its bright colors, and promises them extraordinary delights if they come inside the Imaginarium, represented a fake mirror. Once inside, they enter Parnassus´ mind, or maybe Parnassus enters their mind, and they can choose enlightenment or some cheap thrills. The drunks, of course, go for the cheap thrills.
“Lost another one,” sighs Parnassus. You see, the Doctor is a centuries-old monk who once made a deal with the Devil for his immortality, and is now in the midst of another deal with the devil to see who can win the most souls. You see, the devil – Mr. Nick (played, quite wonderfully, by Tom Waits) – is a gamblin´ man. What are they gambling over? Something to do with his daughter
And that´s about where Tony comes in. Ledger, apparently, only shot the real-world, London-set scenes, so when Tony enters the Imaginarium he´s portrayed by a trio of different actors: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. Each carries off the character transition seamlessly, though Depp has considerably less to do than the others. Ultimately, Tony is a rather supporting role in this tale, and I´m not so sure the attention paid to his character pays off all that well by the end.
Conversely, the heart of the film – the stuff between Parnassus and Mr. Nick, and between Parnassus and Valentina – works wonderfully, and Plummer and Waits are both excellent, Lily Cole enchanting. I´m not convinced Doctor Parnassus works a whole, but some of its scenes are pure magic.
Minor complaint: some heavy reliance on CGI in the Imaginarium scenes, which is never really bad, but less artful than what more conventional animation could have produced.
It´s not all that complicated: Jane Adler (Meryl Streep) begins an affair with ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), who left her for a hot young thing a decade ago, while starting a fresh romance with architect Adam (Steve Martin). Jane´s friends cheer her on, while her children – now all grown up – sit on the sidelines.
That´s all there is to Nancy Meyer´s It´s Complicated, and if I told you who Jane ends up with at the end there´d be little reason to see the movie. It´s a cross between Meyer´s usual fluffy rom-coms (What Women Want, Something´s Gotta Give, The Holiday) with a more mature, introspective story; it succeeds as neither, ensuring that the film appeals to a very small audience.
Jane is a successful owner of a bakery, romantically wanting, building a new addition to her home, which Adam is heading up. Ex-husband Jake has apparently had enough with his (relatively) new wife Agness (Lake Bell), who wants another kid and has him visit the fertility clinic twice a week. He´s ready to return home, and gets an opportunity when he and Jane have a few too many drinks over dinner while in New York for their son´s college graduation.
“Oh no! What have I done!” Jane exclaims the next morning. Well, she´s had an affair with her ex-husband, who is now married to another woman, a woman who did the same thing to Jane years ago. Few of us, I think, are that committed to the institution of marriage to see much conflict here, but there´s your movie in a nutshell.
The kids, certainly, have a problem with it. A son, two daughters and a son-in-law (John Krasinski) clutter the screen for the majority of the running time. I was wondering why all these extraneous characters were here, but then there´s that big scene in which the affair is revealed and everyone gets all upset, for reasons unknown to me. Manufactured drama.
But what Jane really think? Does she still love Jake? Is she willing to forgive his past transgressions and current inadequacies? Or does she like Adam? If not answered, these questions should at least be confronted during the course of the film. But no, they´re barely graced upon. Move onto the next gag, where they get stoned at the party.
Baldwin, sliding into the role in full 30 Rock Jack Donaghy persona, is the one reason to see the film – he´s hugely entertaining and accounts for most of the laughs here. Streep feels entirely out of place here – she´s above the material, we feel in every scene, and that´s not necessarily a failing of the material – and Martin is strangely sedated. Krasinski is also fun as the son-in-law who comes to learn more than he wants to. He´s one of the leads in the US version of The Office; maybe that´s why he and Baldwin fare so well, they´re used to this sitcom-level material.
It´s Complicated is well-produced, with a better cast than the material deserves, and its target audience should enjoy. Exactly which audience that is, I couldn´t tell you.
Scott Sanders´ Black Dynamite, a pitch-perfect satire of 70s blaxploitation flicks, is just a little too accurate. This isn´t so much a spoof of one of the good efforts in the genre, like Shaft or Superfly or Sweet Sweetback´s Baadasssss Song (an admittedly tough sit that would seem ripe for this treatment), it´s more a satire of the Dolemite films starring Rudy Ray Moore, which were funny enough by themselves.
This results in a film that – if you´re game – is entertaining in spots and even laugh-out-loud funny. But because it´s such a committed recreation of a terrible movie, over the course of an hour and a half it really does start to feel terrible. That it´s supposed to be bad is little consolation while we´re sitting there checking our watch every fifteen minutes, sifting through a generic plot and waiting for the next gag.
An Adam West cameo informs us that he´s comin´ – comin´ – comin´ to avenge the death of his little brother. Yes, Black Dy-na-mite (Michael Jai White) is here to kick some ass when he´s not busy keeping his bitches in line.
What starts out as a detective story – with the aid of friend Bullhorn (Byron Minns), Dynamite gets some info about his brother´s last days from Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson) and heads out to take on Chicago Wind (Mykelti Williamson) – is quickly dropped when Detective O´Leary (Kevin Chapman) tells Dynamite his brother was working for them to keep drugs off the street when he was gunned down.
Now Dynamite takes up his late brother´s cause, and in fifteen minutes, the film will be about something else entirely, as he hooks up with Pam Grier lookalike Gloria (Salli Richardson) and a militant group fronted by Black Hand Jack (Bokeem Woodbine). Then there´s Anaconda malt liquor, anti-black agendas, awful kung fu, political intrigue, and a slew of jokes that aren´t exactly politically correct.
There´s also some terrible camerawork full of random pans and zooms, choppy editing that has accidentally left in some miscues, and a wide range of acting. Giant afros fill the screen, decorated by hippy-era sets and costumes. This thing is so spot-on in its recreation that it deserves all the praise in the world. No faux-70s-film effects like Tarantino and Rodriguez used in Grindhouse; this is a genuine relic.
But does it work? For every good gag here – and there are plenty of ‘em – I found my interest level waning as the disconnected plot progressed. This stuff is great in small doses, but it drags as a whole. The finale, however – out-of-this-world stuff that, no, I didn´t expect even from Black Dynamite – salvaged the movie in my eyes.
The soundtrack is still ringing in my ears. Dy-no-mite (beat) Dy-no-mite. Cult audiences will eat this up, but others would be wise to proceed with caution. Still, you owe it to yourself to at least check out the (excellent) trailer. Filmed in Cinemaphonic Quadrovision.