At one time, former member of British comedy group Monty Python, Terry Gilliam was one of my favourite directors. I feel he reached the pinnacle of his talents with the excellent Bruce Willis sci-fi fantasy Twelve Monkeys. Yet subsequent releases have failed to pass by my radar, and along with the utterly bizarre Tideland, I began to feel he had lost the magic that had singled him out as one of the most inventive directors around. So I promised myself I would check out what else he has done recently, and this one caught my eye.
Mostly famous as the last movie of tragic star Heath Ledger, but so much more than, set in modern-day London, we follow a travelling theatre company promising to show the often reluctant members of the public a world of their own imagination beyond a fake mirror. Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) however tells his daughter Valentina (the gorgeous Lily Cole) that he has lived for more than a thousand years, and when he fell in love with a mortal woman, he made a deal with the devil (creepy musician Tom Waits) to grant him youth, yet as part of the bargain, if he was to ever have a son of daughter, they would belong to the devil by their sixteenth birthday. Valentina is about to become sixteen, and the devil returns to offer Doctor Parnassus a new wager.
Heath Ledger stars as a runaway con-man whose attempted murder is thwarted by the theatre company, and they take him in. Due to the fact Ledger died during filming, Gilliam crafted a character around the tragedy that whenever he enters the imaginarium, he is played by a different actor (a trio of famous faces, of which I won’t spoil) and in the context of the fantastical storyline … it works brilliantly. The ideas, and clever special effects showcased in this movie took my breath away, part Alice In Wonderland, part The Lovely Bones, and shows without a doubt that Gilliam remains one of the sharpest cinematic visionaries of our time – loosing none of the skill he showed in movies like Brazil and Time Bandits. Some of the surrounding, real-world elements jar a little with the fantasy ones, and sometimes the story is a little scatter-shot, which has often been the case with Gilliam’s work … but with a classic good vs evil morality tale at it’s heart and visual wonder like I’ve never seen, this was a real treat.
The mere mention of Rogers & Hammerstein’s timeless musical favourite conjours up memories of sitting slouched in front of the TV at Christmas, too much turkey & stuffing in our bellies, wondering just how long this thing is on for and whose eaten all the Christmas pud? Yet as the movie is one of the most over played films of the Christmas (or any holiday) season, some look on it with disdain brought on from over familiarity. Which is a real shame, as this was probably the last really good musical of old Hollywood, the kind that you just don’t get to see anymore, and having watched it again, many years later – it’s grand sing-a-long wonder, thought-provoking drama and touching love story has aged very well indeed.
Now this ticks two boxes to my liking straight away … the always reliable acting talents of one Denzel Washington, probably my favourite African-American actor (yeah, even more so than Samuel L, folks), and secondly, the fact this is a Spike Lee joint. Now this director has made plenty of celebrated films, not all of which have I actually bothered to see, but it has to be said, when I do take the time to take a puff on said joint, he impresses. Do The Right Thing is a definite classic, and I also recommend Edward Norton vehicle The 25th Hour for fans of quality, no-holds-barred acting.
Now back to the feature in hand. Lee has long since graduated from being the black-folks voice of a generation, and is now one of the most assured and skillful directors working today, and this very well done thriller is no exception. Step into the breach one Clive Owen, another actor I admire but don’t always manage to see the best of, and here he plays a clever-ass bank robber with an ingenious plan up his sleeve. On his tail is dapperly-dressed NYPD detective Denzel, ready to pitt wits with the criminals and hopefully save the day … but what he hasn’t banked on is just how damn clever this robber’s plan is, and not even a smug, shady government-type (Jodie Foster) can out smart him.
This is gripping, stylish and very well acted, even if a few of the cast-choices seem a little wasted (really, what is Willem Dafoe doing here? And Foster, although beautiful and sophisticated, has handled much meatier roles than this). But the story held my interest – I was eager to see how it all played out, and the timer on the DVD was not looked at once (a habit I fall into when a film looses me somewhere). No fear here, and although the final, drawn-out pay off is a little ‘meh’, this was a solidly entertaining 2hrs.
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