A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Quick Lesson, Never Walk Through Mirrors Or Fall Down Rabbit Holes

In Fantasy on November 28, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Had to catch up on the fantasy movies that have neither a Potter or a Hobbit in them, which meant I had to see Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND and Terry Gilliam’s THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS. One I felt was a clever take on a classic story, with over the top visuals and performances (especially of the Johnny Depp variety); the other was a confusing take on retreads that the visual director has taken before and was shot like a bad TV movie.

And I just realized those descriptions won’t help you figure out which is which…

First up is ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Tim Burton has made versions of this similar classic since the beginning of his career. Outcast ventures into a world they’re not familiar with; and it’s full of colorful characters, high stakes and some kind of danger, and ultimately a journey back home with the resolve of who that person is. While I know that the movie had mixed reviews when it was first released earlier this year; I found it to be very entertaining, absolutely charming, and even with some of the over the top performances, nothing really jumped out at me as out of place.

Tim Burton has been on a sort of downward slope in my view of his recent movies. CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY being the bottom of the barrel for the movies that I just did not like. CORPSE BRIDE was a soulless (heh) retread of the far-superior (and not directed by Burton) movie THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. And SWEENEY TODD was a step in the right direction. Taking Burton back into the gothic horror of his classic movies EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and SLEEPY HOLLOW.

Alice, has now grown up. She’s on the verge of being engaged and her spirit is just not ready to be contained. So, it might be said, she falls into this one last flight of fancy which helps her to realize she needs to be her own person – which is a trait that I’ll always root for. The actual trip down the rabbit hole is filled with classic Lewis Carroll-like iconography and references. (I’ve sadly never read the books, but I clearly remember the Disney cartoon – whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know.) The characters are all executed in a manner that creates a coherent world – full of acid-trip colors, extremely exaggerated anatomies, and of course characters that just spout nonsense. The cast is all great, from the voice actors of Timothy Spall and Michael Gough, to the more on-screen (in some form or other) characters played by Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Of course, there’s also the much more plainly made up Alice, in the form of Mia Wasikowska. Who makes Alice seem child-like, sickly and head-strong.

The thing that I really liked about the movie was mainly just in the imagination shown for some of the characters. While the story serves it’s purpose – it is fairly conventional, and offers little in the form of surprise. (I mean, how many times has this story been told already?) But, whenever certain “people” show up – whether it’s the creepily designed Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum; to the marvelous recreations of the Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman) and the Cheshire Cat (superbly done by Stephen Fry) – the movie shines. I could sit for days and watch the charming and devilish disappearing and floating cat. There’s the ever-calm demeanor with just a taste of danger that could appear at any time.

Finally, the movie’s message – “be your own person” – is also mixed in with a slightly more realistic and pragmatic approach to how insignificant we are in the grander scale of things. The movie is built up, as this grand adventure for Alice; who must save “Underland (apparently Alice has been an unreliable narrator in the past and misremembered the location’s name) from the destruction of the Jabberwocky. But, when that final meeting happens, it’s not her that the creature cares the slightest about. But instead the vital being that MUST be present to defeat evil is something entirely else. (Sure, Alice has to help, but it turns out that possibly it could have just been anyone.)

So, I really enjoyed the movie. I put off seeing it because I figured it to be a lame retread of what Burton and countless others have done before with these characters. (Plus I didn’t care about seeing it in 3-D.) But, now I’m a little sad I missed seeing the spectacle of this place on the big screen. Hopefully there will be future “family-friendly” shows that I will be able to attend.

Next is THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, the newest flight into fancy, and the always incredibly lush imagination of Terry Gilliam. I thought it appropriate to write this with both of these visually-exciting (though in completely different ways), and favorite directors of mine. While Burton’s designs tend to be clean and striking; Gilliam’s tends to be broken down and dirty. His fantasy worlds have always seen better days and built upon certain-seeming limited budgets. His creations aren’t from high-society, instead they rebuke those stations of power and tend to live on the road (or more exact, in the gutter). From Baron Munchausen to THE FISHER KING. His heroes have been those that use garbage can lids as shields and (visible) stage-pulleys to help them fly.

Dr. Parnassus and his ilk are exactly the same. The movie opens with a broken down, horse-drawn carriage arriving outside a pub. It’s rickety stage lowers and it’s marquee lights up to reveal stunning, yet shoddily made up characters like Andrew Grafield’s Anton, and Verne Troyer’s Percy. Only to reveal the hindu-esque (yet still caucasian) Dr. Parnassus, himself, played by Christopher Plummer. We learn that the imaginarium is sort of a race-track where bets are made between the doctor and a far more nefarious – almost Beetlejuice-like being named Mr. Nick (played by Tom Waits, who it’s always a pleasure to see on-screen.). Once they’ve gotten someone to enter, they place an ultimate choice in front of them. It’s all part of a much larger game, having to deal with Parnassus’ soon to be sixteen year old daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole).

When they come upon a man hanging from his neck under one of London’s bridges, the true game is afoot. Who can collect five souls first? Tony, as the new man is known – and famously played by Heath Ledger, in his tragically, final role – becomes the catalyst and eventual tipping point.

I’ll admit it, the movie’s kind of a mess. The way it’s shot – featuring the unconventional use of extreme wide-angle lenses by Gilliam, creates an off-kilter world. The frame is pulled and distorted and unfortunately makes the movie look quite cheap throughout. Venturing into the Imaginarium is not much better. There are some moments of visual excitement, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before – most likely by Gilliam himself – or done better. Which is the major flaw in his use of CGI. It’s just not a dirty medium, whereas everything that Gilliam imagines is rough-edged and covered in grime.

But, where the movie kind of takes off, is seeing Gilliam take on a more unique and puzzling story. One we haven’t really seen since TIDELAND (a tough movie to watch, but still very much of the director’s sensibilities.) – which I guess was the last movie he made. But it doesn’t wash away the terrible trip into fairy tales that he took with THE BROTHERS GRIMM or the disappointment over his ever-failing attempts to get THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE made. I love Gilliam as a filmmaker. One of my all-time favorite movies, is one of his most under-appreciated – THE FISHER KING. And Parnassus is mostly at home in that exact same universe.

The performances are all a little overly-theatrical, which doesn’t make it necessarily a bad thing. But, also just lends to the lower quality of the movie. They’re all strong, guaranteed from the quality of actor hired into the roles. But it’s especially evident in how big a hit the production took when Ledger died, in that those roles are filled with people like Jude Law, Colin Farrell, and Johnny Depp. All great, actors, but just seem thrown together with little rhyme or reason. While I think I get what the effect was meant to be, it still read as a quick-save, more than a fluid-transition.

But, can we fault a filmmaker for wanting to finish a movie? I guess not and it’s certainly tragic. But, it’s just another step in a number of missteps. I feel this movie, along with TIDELAND, are movies that require an introduction by Gilliam. On Tideland’s DVD, he says that the movie is meant to be seen from a child’s perspective; that the horrific and macabre things that follow are seen through innocent eyes. Eyes that don’t yet know how life is, or how society deals with certain events. I feel Parnassus might need a similar speech. One that tells us the mindset that Gilliam’s audience should be in, or have, as they set out on this specific journey. Because he certainly doesn’t make it easily accessible to enter these worlds. (Which is not meant to be the same as a creator explaining his/her work.) But, they’re trips worth taking anyway.

And just to leave you with this; both of these movies are available to watch via Netflix’s Watch Instantly. That’s how I do it. Check them out, I believe my opinions stand counter to what a lot of other people thought. So, I’m open to seeing what you think.

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