Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr. Gilliam

On Saturday, my wife and I went to the Sunshine Cinema to see "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus". We had a lot of holiday movies to choose from, but most look flat out BAD and we love Terry Gilliam's work.

He's often accused of being excessive, but that's one big reason to go see his movies. I want the excess: with excess, there's a spectacle to be seen, and "Dr. Parnassus" doesn't disappoint. There is an impossibly remote and yet, immense monastery, a tawdry yet fantastic traveling theater that looks centuries old, and extended scenes that take place in the "Imaginarium" - a dreamscape that's set off - though not well-controlled - by the imaginations of the souls who enter it. All this is a visually fascinating treat, and the movie looks and feels unique.

Where Gilliam really IS guilty of excess is in the script department. Scenes take place that set up the action admirably, but the film often returns to expository storytelling. It's totally unnecessary. One reviewer noted that Gilliam throws you into the action with the first scene; he does. Why then does he return to tell you more about the background? We get it.

Once "Imaginarium" gets going, it really goes and pulls you along. With a plot that involves wagers with a derby-wearing devil, an imperiled family, a shady and mysterious stranger, and rich ladies lusting after spiritual fulfillment, Dr. Gilliam is like Dr. Parnassus's storyteller; he has to keep spinning his tale, or the world will collapse. He's a good spinner.

There's a haunted quality to the film that's clearly intended - and one that isn't. Heath Ledger as Tony is the one of the three main characters in the story. He drives the action forward, though we don't know until the climax what his motives are. By that time, Ledger is gone from the movie.

When he lost his young star, Gilliam finished the small number of un-shot sequences - unfortunately, they are key scenes - with different actors. The explanation for why Tony has a different face is plausible - in the Imaginarium, people look the way YOU want them to. The device works, but ultimately it reminds you that Ledger is dead and every mention of mortality - an important theme in this film - has a discomfiting edge.

Christopher Plummer hands in a wonderful performance as a boozy, decrepit Parnassus that put me in the mind of King Lear. He's an actor that seems to truly inhabit his roles more and more. Tom Waits as Mr. Nick is a scrupulously fair scoundrel. Waits is not just underrated - he rarely seems rated at all; but his concert and album work is so character driven, that it never surprises me when he turns in a great performance like he does here. He's understated yet seems to be having more sly fun than anyone. The model Lily Cole as Parnassus's daughter looks like a doll's head sewn on a gawky body, but she's quite good and perfectly cast. Verne Troyer, who'll forever be known as Mini-Me, is the best he's ever been; he understands the style and he keeps the pace up.

Heath Ledger is harder to assess. His arrival on the scene as the victim of a failed murder attempt is unsettling, but his magnetism wins you over. In the scenes where he takes on the role of Parnassus's carnival barker, he's persuasive, appealing, and ultimately, wonderfully insidious. That his performance leaves you wanting more is probably the saddest thing about this meringue of a movie.

Yes, it's flawed. Yes, it's Heath Ledger's last screen work. As long as you go in knowing that, you'll find it's really a touching little story in a huge, fantastical universe spun out of one of the best imaginations to ever work in film.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Big Apple Circus

We try to hit the Big Apple Circus as often as we can, because its the big local show, its a non-profit that does good work in the community, and it employs great circus acts from around the world. Ringling has always felt too big and impersonal - and I can only take Cirque de Soleil's Espirantu-esque commentary so often.

This years show is a jam-packed two hours that nonetheless feels shorter. Consummate entertainer Eddie Cantor used to say, "Always leave 'em wanting more", and the Big Apple's directors take that advice to heart.

Highlights include a dog act we always look forward to - a little short this year - that finds its actors by rescuing strays at animal shelters (bravo, Big Apple). The act includes Russian cradle aerialist Regina Dobrovitskaya, who in her other turn has nothing but a bolt of purple cloth protecting her from a drop of more than seven stories, and she wows the audience. The Long Twins - contortionists from China - somehow wriggle in and out of tin tubes no wider than a small dinner plate; what they do looks horrendously painful, but they also make it look easy.

Other standouts include the Curatola Brothers (acrobats from Italy), the Aniskin Troupe (a Trapeze family from Russia) and Picasso, Jr. (an AMAZING ping-pong ball and plate juggler from Spain). The rest of Big Apple performers hit the same high-degree of professionalism and polish that just throws you back in your seat and amazes you. Ringmaster Kevin Venardos - whose father and sister I know very well - makes a great successor to founder/ringmaster Paul Binder, and I hope he stays with them for a long time.

Final note - Barry Lubin as Grandma the Clown is just wonderful, as always, and the star of the show is Bello Nock. Bello was called "America's favorite clown" by Ringling for the years he was with them, but he's not a clown so much as a one-man circus. He never gets too obtrusive, but he can do it all, from playing the fluegel horn, to trapeze, to bungee, to trampoline, to a ridiculously scary daredevil act involving two rotating circles - Wheel of Steel - that reach fifty feat up into the big top - he and his partner run inside the circles, outside the circles (!) and fly off them (!!!) weightless into the air up at the top of the tent. Frightening. Seventh generation member of an old Swiss-Italian circus family, Bello's 13-year-old daughter has joined the troupe this year. It almost sounds like one of those circus stories you hear when you're a kid; "But doc, I AM Grimaldi"!

I always loved circuses, there's something miraculous and mysterious about them, and I always feel like I'm being allowed to see something rare, being let in on a world that's a little bit removed from the rest of us.

So go - you'll get in the holiday spirit because you'll feel like a kid within two minutes of the band starting the opening march.