Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)


Hana Sugisaki points out the logical flaws in the plot; Takuya Kimura just doesn’t care.

(2017) Martial Arts (Magnet) Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yôko Yamamoto, Ebizô Ichikawa, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Seizô Fukumoto, Renji Ishibashi, Shun Sugata, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Jon Iles (voice), Philip Hersh (voice), Libby Brien (voice). Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s intensely lonely – particularly when everyone you know and loved was already dead. Immortals would be likely to become hermits as the pain of getting close to anyone would outweigh the comforts of companionship. Being immortal, in other words, sucks.

Manji (Kimura) is a samurai who loves only his little sister Machi (Sugisaki). Manji kills his corrupt lord and takes Machi on the run with him after the lord murders her husband and drives Machi insane. The two are cornered by ronin after the bounty on his head; after he agrees to disarm himself so that Machi might get safe passage, the ronin leader kills the girl anyway out of spite. Manji then slaughters every member of the ronin before collapsing to the ground, mortally wounded.

He is approached by an 800-year-old witch (Yamamoto) who infuses him with sacred bloodworms that will heal all his wounds and render him immortal. Rather than being a blessing however, he quickly realizes that he has been cursed and must wander around as a rogue samurai himself, alone and friendless.

A half century later, he is approached by another young girl, Rin Asano (also Sugisaki). Her father, a dojo sensei, has been murdered by the ambitious Kagehisa Anotsu (Fukushi) who has plans to unite all the dojos in Japan into a kind of super-dojo under his control. He has also kidnapped Rin’s mother, although her head shows up mounted on the shoulder plate of the armor of one of Anotsu’s lieutenants. Rin wants justice and the witch essentially led her to Manji to get it. Manji realizes that this might well be his opportunity at redemption that would break the curse and allow him, finally, to die.

Taking on Anotsu who has some secrets of his own is no easy task, even for a guy who can’t be killed. Also there’s the nearly insane Shira (Ichihara) whom Manji has exacted a terrible price from and who means to get his revenge on the immortal, even if it means killing Rin.

Miike is a visual stylist who has the poetry of violence that Scorsese utilizes. He is artful with his gore and mayhem; the fights carefully choreographed to be almost ballets of carnage. Severed limbs fly through the air in graceful parabolas while jets of blood fountain from fatal wounds but this is no Grand Guignol. It’s most definitely Art.

This director is definitely an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. He has a connection with Japan’s collective id and knows how to tap into it so that even audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture can relate although it’s much easier if you’re at least conversant with Japanese cultural norms. He also, like Scorsese, is superb at shot composition and knows how to frame the action, often with the most bucolic and idyllic of backgrounds.

I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this; at more than two hours there are plot points that go nowhere and characters leap into the story wildly from nowhere, careen about the plot a bit like a pachinko machine and disappear, never to be seen again. I’m not one for saying that a master should be edited but this could have used some brevity. Also, Sugisaki just about always shrieks her lines; I get that there are some cultural differences between what is acceptable acting practices between the States and Japan but godamighty she gets annoying very fast and she’s in most of the scenes.

This isn’t for the faint of heart nor should it be. As I say, Miike is an acquired taste and like sushi, there are plenty of those who will resist acquiring it. Those who can appreciate the delicate tastes and textures of sushi can enjoy it as a favored dish the rest of their lives; so too those cinephiles who appreciate the different and the unique will discover Miike and be able to enjoy his work for the rest of their lives.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are intense and satisfying. Miike is a master of shot composition and utilizes some beautiful cinematography. The costumes are magnificent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie runs a little too long. Sugisaki is nearly unwatchable as Rin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Miike’s 100th film in a 22 year career…he has since filmed three more (and counting).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Assassins
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coco

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The Age of Adaline


Blake Lively is lovely.

Blake Lively is lovely.

(2015) Romantic Fantasy (Lionsgate) Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew, Lynda Boyd, Hugh Ross (voice), Richard Harmon, Fulvio Cecere, Anjali Jay, Hiro Kanagawa, Peter J. Gray, Izabel Peace, Cate Richardson, Jane Craven, Noel Johansen, Aaron Craven, Primo Allon, Darren Dolynski, Alison Wandzura. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, you get to watch all your friends and family grow old and die as you remain young and vibrant. You also get to worry about secret government agents kidnapping you and turning you into a lab rat. After all, when you have eternal life everybody’s going to want what you’ve got. I would imagine that eternal life would be exceedingly lonely.

Adaline Bowman (Lively) doesn’t have to imagine; she knows. Born at the turn of the century in the San Francisco area. Widowed at 29 (in the early 1930s) with a daughter Flemming (Pearce – Age 5/Richardson – Age 20/Burstyn) to raise on her own, she is involved in a freak car accident during a freak snowfall in Northern California in which a freak lightning bolt hits her freakin’ car after she skids into a stream and dies of hypothermia or drowning, take your pick. All this freakishness serves to stop her from aging and she remains eternally 29.

At first this is just a cause of amusement; how is it possible that Adaline looks young enough to be her daughter’s sister? Then as her contemporaries grow into middle age and she doesn’t, the wrong word is whispered into the wrong ear. This being the McCarthy era, some firm men in dark suits come calling. Adaline manages to escape but realizes that she has to stay on the run for the rest of the life. Move constantly, then change identities once a decade or so.

Still, she can’t stay away from her beloved San Francisco, working as an archivist at the San Francisco Public Library at the tail end of her current incarnation as Jenny Larson. She has only one friend – a blind pianist (Boyd) who doesn’t realize the woman she believes to be middle aged is actually still in the full flower of her youth. Only her daughter Flemming, now in her 80s and considering a move to a retirement home, knows Adaline’s secret. Other than those two and a series of dogs, Adaline has formed no attachments to anyone; any attempt at love is eventually rebuffed although she came close during the 1960s.

However, on New Year’s Eve she meets Ellis (Huisman), a hunky dot com millionaire who loves books and is really, really into Adaline. At first she repulses all his attempts to flirt and to ask her out. When he plays a little dirty, threatening to revoke a donation to the library, she relents. Soon the two of them are sleeping together although she knows that in a short time she’ll be leaving but she is drawn to him like a moth to the flame. When he takes her up to Sonoma to meet his parents, he discovers that his dad (Ford) is 1960s jilted guy, who is now celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary to Ellis’ mom (Baker). Awk-ward.  Especially since he recognizes her.

So Adaline is ready to run again, but she is beginning to tire of the chase. All she wants to do is stay in one place, with one guy and Ellis looks to be that guy. But how can she stay with someone she is going to outlive…by a LOT? Is it truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all when you’re immortal?

The premise here is an interesting one but by and large it is wasted. Being an ageless immortal must have an upside as well as a downside but all we really see here is the down, and perhaps to appeal to a certain kind of audience, the movie centers on Adaline’s romantic history. We see none of what other things she does, what careers she undertakes, the things she witnesses. It is as if the filmmakers figure that the only thing that matters in a woman’s life is for her to fall in love. Kind of myopic and maybe borderline misogynistic when you think about it.

For that reason Adaline is written as a cold and distant woman, rarely speaking in a tone that isn’t devoid of warmth or possessed of any humanity whatsoever. Therefore the brunt of why this movie doesn’t work falls squarely on Blake Lively’s shoulders and the sad part is that it really isn’t her fault. She is given direction to be icy and unreachable – so she is that to the audience as well. Lively is one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood and she has shown that she is capable of being a charismatic onscreen presence in other roles but because of the coldness that she is made to possess here, rather than generating audience sympathy for her plight she actually repels it.

There are other problems besides Lively, most of which I’ve already mentioned. There are a couple of plot lapses; for example, Adaline theoretically changes her identity every ten years and yet Ellis’ dad recognizes her and calls her Adaline. So she used her own name one decade just for kicks? Doesn’t seem to be in her character.

Fortunately, Ford is here to give a sympathetic performance that will remind you why he has been for 35 years one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. Burstyn and Baker, both getting on in age, are both dependable actresses and they don’t disappoint here. Maybe the biggest star of the movie is San Francisco and Northern California. The beauty of the City and its environs takes center stage.

Still, this is merely marginally entertaining, a rote romantic fantasy that could have been so much better. We really don’t get any insight to who Adaline is and how her immortality affects her as a person, other than to put her on the perpetual lam. With longevity must come at least some sort of insight into the world but we get none here. There are a lot of reasons why immortality would suck, but hopefully one of them won’t be that we remain as shallow as a saucer. If I knew I was going to be eternally young but would neither grow nor learn well, I think I might turn down that particular gift. Yes, I think that I definitely would.

REASONS TO GO: Ford, Burstyn and Baker are solid. San Francisco utilized nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Lively is beautiful but ultimately empty here. Wasted opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and a suggestive comment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burstyn also played a daughter older than her parent in last year’s Interstellar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Gemma Bovery

In Time


In Time

The future is a hell of a party.

(2011) Science Fiction (20th Century Fox) Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Vincent Kartheiser, Alex Pettyfer Johnny Galecki, Olivia Wilde, Nick Lashaway, Collins Pennie, Rachel Roberts, Matt Bomer, Yaya DaCosta. Directed by Andrew Niccol

Time is money they say and in some ways it’s literally true. When we are employed, we are not only being paid for our skills but for our time. A good percentage of us receive our wages paid by the hour and our work lives are measured in how many hours we work so when you buy a gallon of milk at the grocery store, the money you pay for it is symbolic of the time you worked. That gallon of milk represents twenty minutes of work you put in to make the money you paid for it.

In the future, there is no pretense about it anymore. Cash is a thing of the past and the only thing that matters is time. An hourly wage is literally that. We’ve been genetically engineered to stop aging at age 25; after that, we’re given a year of additional life and in order to extend it beyond our 26th birthday we need to work to add hours and days to our lifespan. We can even see how much time we have left by a digital countdown clock in neon green that is imprinted on our forearms. When it reaches zero, our time on this earth is done.

Like most people in the ghetto that is called Dayton (not Ohio – it looks a lot like Los Angeles), Will Salas (Timberlake) lives day to day, waking up each morning with less than 24 hours to live. He lives with his mother (Wilde) who’s in the same boat but for whatever reason she seems unable to hold onto time – time management is a necessity in this future. She is working a double shift and won’t be back for more than a day; Will goes out to a bar with his best friend and drinking buddy Borel (Galecki) and encounters Henry Hamilton, a millionaire with more than a century on his arm who seems out to kill himself.

It turns out he’s lived more than a century and has become disillusioned and bored; he wants to die. He has attracted the unfortunate attention of Fortis (Pettyfer), a gangster who leads a gang called the Minutemen who essentially rob people of their time. Fortis wants Hamilton’s but Will intervenes and hides Hamilton in a warehouse. Hamilton tells Will that there is plenty of time for everyone, but the rich are hoarding it so that they can live forever. The two men wax philosophic before falling asleep.

When Will wakes up, Hamilton is gone and Will has more than a century on his arm. He looks out the window to see Hamilton sitting on the edge of a bridge. Will tries to run out and save him but Hamilton’s clock zeroes out and he falls to his death. Security cameras catch Will on the scene and the police force, known as the Timekeepers, are alerted. Timekeeper Raymond Leon (Murphy) is assigned the case and the general perception is that Will stole Hamilton’s time and murdered him.

In the meantime, Will’s mom is getting ready to return home on the bus only to find out that they raised the fare and she doesn’t have enough to return home. She has about an hour left of life to her and a two hour walk so she runs. She tries to get people to help her, give her an extra 15 minutes of life (people are able to transfer time from one another by holding their wrists together) but nobody will help. Will, realizing that she’s not on the bus, takes off at a dead run; she sees him as her time is counting down and they run towards each other but it’s all for naught; she dies in his arms.

Determined to face down the injustice that is ruling the lives of the poor, the now-wealthy Will travels to the wealthy part of town (this costs quite a bit of money to cross from one “time zone” to another) which is called New Greenwich. This is where the wealthy live in spectacular luxury. There are also casinos where you can literally bet your life. Will plays poker with one of the richest men on Earth, Philippe Weis (Kartheiser) and wins a millennium. This catches the eye of Philippe’s daughter Sylvia (Seyfried) who invites Will to a party that evening.

At the party, Raymond catches up with Will and arrests him, taking all but 24 hours from his wrist. However, Will escapes by using Sylvia as a hostage. He manages to make it back into Dayton where he and Sylvia are both robbed of most of their time by Fortis; it would have been all but the Minutemen are scared off by the approaching Timekeepers. Will and Sylvia escape into the anonymity of the slums.

There Will demands a thousand year ransom from Philippe for the return of his daughter. However, Philippe refuses to pay it. Sylvia, incensed, tells Will where to find lots of time. They begin robbing banks, where people can get loans of time. The two take the time but distribute it to the poor. They go on a crime spree which threatens the balance of things; the rich retaliate by raising prices exorbitantly. Will’s Robin Hood crusade looks to be derailed but there might be one way yet to thwart the rich.

That this is an allegory of modern economics seems to be a slam dunk; substitute “dollars” for “time” and you have what is essentially a commentary on the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. There really isn’t anything subtle here although I wonder if there is a connection between the Minutemen – taking from the poor, and the Tea Party who have been accused of doing the same thing. There is a bit of a Revolutionary War theme going here don’t you think?

Timberlake has shown a good deal of potential in going from boy band idol to serious actor. He gets one step closer with this role. It is mainly upon him to carry the movie and he proves to have strong shoulders .Will has got essentially a good heart that he keeps hidden because he’s smart enough to know that it can get you killed in an environment such as this one. Timberlake plays him very minimally, allowing audiences to read between the lines of his performance. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but for my money this is his best performance to date. He’s not quite ready for the kind of stardom of, say, a Brad Pitt or a Matt Damon but he’s getting there.

Seyfried spends the film in a Louise Brooks-like wig that contributes to the overall retro look of the film. In a sense it makes her timeless. Seyfried has at times been impressive in her short career but I would have liked to see a little more fire from her here; something tells me that she was directed to be more subtle with her emotions.

Speaking of the look of the film, it’s an odd mix between high tech (the arm digital display) and retro (the vehicles are mostly chassis from the 60s and 70s souped up a little). Although the movie is set in the near future, there are characters in it who are a century old. One wonders if there was some reverse genetic engineering done for people who were alive when the breakthrough was made. Certainly the wealthy would have been the ones to receive such treatment.

There are some good action sequences here and a nice car chase, but this is more a movie about ideas than action. As such, it isn’t going to get a lot of love from the fanboys who like their sci-fi with phasers set to kill. I get the sense that the design of the future world wasn’t terribly well thought out and budget limitations probably kept them from making the world look too futuristic but this is a well written movie that makes it’s point rather firmly. I suspect Herman Cain might not like this movie much which might be all the reason you need to go and see it.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing premise with lots of modern day allegories about class distinctions. Timberlake’s best performance to date.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks imagination when designing the future.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of violence, some sexuality (with a little bit of partial nudity thrown in for good measure) and a teensy bit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Olivia Wilde plays Justin Timberlake’s mother in the film, she’s actually younger than he is in real life.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the chase scenes are going to look a lot better on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Dinner for Schmucks

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Michelle Yeoh finds that checking out books at the Ancient China branch of the library can be problematical at best.

(2008) Action Adventure Horror (Universal) Brenan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, John Hannah, Isabella Leong, Chau Sang Anthony Wong, Russell Wong, Liam Cunningham, David Calder, Jessey Meng, Tian Liang.  Directed by Rob Cohen

Movie monsters may come and movie monsters may go, but you can’t keep them down for too long. That, at least in my estimation, is the lesson generated by the first two movies of the Universal Mummy reboot.

The third installment of the series starts off very promising. Evil Chinese emperor (Li) plans to take over the world, but falls in love with sorceress Zi Yuan (Yeoh) who only has eyes for the emperor’s right hand General Ming (R. Wong), which cheeses off the emperor enough to kill his best field general. The emperor apparently never learned not to piss off a sorceress, so on the pretense of making the emperor immortal she instead curses him and his soldiers to turn into clay, and as such they are entombed for four thousand years.

That is, until Alex O’Connell (Ford) comes along. A young, promising archaeologist excavating in China stumbles upon the tomb, one of the most important finds of the 20th century, but in doing so accidentally awakens the emperor who has plans to resume his world domination scheme after a slight delay. Those darn Chinese emperors!

Alex’s parents, Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz who chose not to return to the role) have been living in wedded bliss for more than a decade since the events of The Mummy Returns. However, they are both unspeakably bored and who wouldn’t be? Anything after a life of danger, adventure, exotic places and of course the undead would seem a bit dull by comparison.

Given the opportunity to return a rare gem to the Chinese people as a gift from the British government, the O’Connell’s head to China to reunite with their son, choosing a bar in Shanghai owned by Evelyn’s ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan (Hannah), which is a mistake in itself. There they are attacked and helped out by Lin (Leong), who turns out to be the daughter of the sorceress and General Ming who inherited her mom’s immortality. Thanks mom!

After witnessing the truly evil nature of the mummy and his human henchman General Yang (C.S.A. Wong), the O’Connell’s realize that they are the only people equipped to deal with yet another outbreak of mummy-ism. They are in turn aided by the sorceress and her yeti pals. This all leads to a big battle by the Great Wall in which the emperor’s soldiers are opposed by the slaves they murdered to build the wall (brought back to life conveniently by the sorceress) and the emperor, who morphs himself into a formidable fire-breathing three-headed dragon. The odds are against the O’Connells and their allies but if you know mummies like they know mummies, you won’t be worried about the whole day-saving thing.

Cohen takes over from Stephen Sommers who helmed the first two movies and does adequately. Cohen is no stranger to big movies, having directed xXx and the original The Fast and the Furious among other things but he doesn’t get to use Vin Diesel here.

Instead, he gets Brendan Fraser and the actor utilizes his considerable charm to make Rick likable despite being a bit of a whiner here. The chemistry between Fraser and Weisz is sorely missed and although Bello is a terrific actress in her own right, she really isn’t right for the role. Quite frankly, her English accent is a bit too upper class for Evelyn, and she comes off as a bit phony. She does look good in the fight scenes at least.

Alex O’Connell has gone from an annoying child in The Mummy Returns to an annoying adult here, so the less said the better. Hannah provides comic relief nicely, but for me the real attraction here is Li and Yeoh. Li is one of the greatest martial artists ever in movies and while he doesn’t get as much time demonstrating his prowess (he’s much too busy being a CGI mummy or dragon), he shines when he does. Yeoh is in my opinion an incredibly gifted actress who is shamefully underrated here in the States. She is, as always, one of the best reasons to see this movie.

There is plenty of eye candy to go around and the action sequences make the movie at least palatable. However, a lot of the sparkle and gee-whiz fun is missing from this movie where it was present in the first two. You get the impression this was just a paycheck for most of the people involved, who are sufficiently talented enough to make this entertaining, but without the spark that would have made this amazing. It’s one of those things where you have good talent, a great concept and skilled filmmakers but it doesn’t add up to the great movie it should have been. Instead, it’s merely adequate.

It’s not good form to compare a movie to the one that you think should have been made, but the movie disappointed me so here you have it. It’s certainly worth a look if you haven’t already seen it, but don’t expect to have your socks blown off. Your footwear is quite safe this time.

WHY RENT THIS: Spectacular effects and some amazing fight scenes. Any chance to see Li and Yeoh is worth taking. Fraser is as charming as ever.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bello is miscast somewhat. The story is a bit weak compared to the first two movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some action movie-type violence and a few disturbing monster images that might be a bit much for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tomb and the terra cotta warriors are based on the actual tomb of the first emperor of the Qin dynasty in Xi’an, China. The excavations have been going slowly for decades, partially because of traps left by the builders of the tomb, some similar to the ones depicted in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual terra cotta warriors, as well as a trivia track and a U-Control feature called “Know Your Mummy” that compares this movie with the previous two Mummy flicks, the latter two being only on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $401.1M on a $145M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Beginners

The Spirit


 
 

The Spirit
Over the top? Not when you’re Samuel L. Jackson.

 

 

(2009) Superhero Action/Comedy (Lionsgate) Gabriel Macht, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Scarlett Johansson, Dan Lauria, Paz Vega, Jaimie King, Louis Lombardi, Stana Katic. Directed by Frank Miller

 

Frank Miller is one of the most honored and respected graphic novelists in the business. His The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most influential graphic novels in history, bringing on the current wave of dark-themed and gritty realism comics that seem to dominate these days.

 

One of his major influences is Will Eisner; hell, nearly everyone writing and drawing comics today can say that. The major industry awards are named after the guy; that should tell you something. One of Eisner’s most famous creations is The Spirit.

 

Denny Colt (Macht) is a police officer who was killed in the line of duty, but has been reborn as The Spirit (Macht), a masked crime fighter known for his red tie and his ability to fight without being killed. He lives in Central City, a dingy, dirty, corrupt place of shadows and alleys, swamps and skyscrapers. He protects the city with his blood and what’s left of his soul. What is there to protect it from? In a word, the Octopus (Jackson), a mad scientist who has the same abilities The Spirit has but who craves something more; immortality.

 

To that end, he is concocting a formula that utilizes some fairly uncommon ingredients, one of which is the Blood of Heracles…Hercules, to you and me. He and his artificially created (and uncommonly stupid) henchmen Logos, Pathos and Ethos (Lombardi all) and his incredibly smart and sexy right hand Silken Floss (Johansson) have torn up the city for the ingredients.

 

However, he’s not the only one looking for immortality. International jewel thief Sand Saref (Mendes), the former love of the late Denny Colt, is also in town looking for the stuff and all hell is breaking loose. The Spirit has his hands full trying to keep the Octopus from achieving his end, while trying to protect his heart from being broken again by Serif.

 

Those who might remember Miller’s Sin City (which he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez) will know the style he employed here, a very noir-ish tone in both look and feel, with black and white and sepia that contrasts wildly with splashes of color; red tie, red lips, red blood. Miller’s graphic novels have been notable for their dark tones and gritty film noir-like style.

 

But this isn’t pure noir; there’s an element of camp to it that is reminiscent of the 1960s Batman, from the henchmen with their names on their shirts to the stylized fighting style. There are also the femme fatales, including the aforementioned Serif and Floss, as well as the assassin Plaster of Paris (Vega). There’s also the doctor, Ellen Dolan (Paulson) who is The Spirit’s love interest and of all the women here has the most personality.

 

But it is the Macht-Jackson show. They are the center of the story; Macht makes for a fine hero while Jackson chews on the scenery like George Lopez at an all-you-can-eat taqueria. Jackson seems to be having a ton of fun in a larger-than-life role. He pulls out all the stops, but never lets his performance overwhelm the part.

 

There is a questionable scene in which Jackson and Johansson are outfitted as Nazis; I’m not exactly sure why Miller went there, other than to add a Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish element to the movie, but it doesn’t work. Neither does Mendes as Saref. The role is meant to be sympathetic in the end, but quite frankly Mendes seems to be more successful when she is less soft. Certainly she’s beautiful and sexy, but in the end I felt she wasn’t quite right for the role.

 

The movie got savaged by critics upon release, while audiences were far more indifferent. Despite a ton of pre-release hype and high expectations given the director and the material, poor word-of-mouth doomed the movie. That is quite a shame, because in many ways the movie is much better than you might have heard it was, but you do have to be in the right frame of mind to really appreciate it. If you are looking for something on the campy side and not so much on the dark gritty side, you might find The Spirit to be some mighty fine entertainment. However, you should be warned that these elements might be a little bit at odds with most folks’ perception of Miller, whose works up to now haven’t had the kind of lighter side depicted here.

 

WHY RENT THIS: Very stylized and campy, generally in a good way. Macht is perfectly cast as the Spirit and Jackson delivers an over-the-top performance as the villain.

 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mendes is terribly miscast and some of the campiness might be grating for those looking for a straight-up superhero movie.

 

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of stylized violence, a bit of sexuality (including some brief nudity) and while it’s pretty much okay for most teens, I’d think twice before letting the young kids see this. 

 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When it came time to shoot Paz Vega’s scene, her costume so distracted Miller that he yelled “Cut” instead of “Action!”  

 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a feature on the creator of the original comic, Will Eisner and his effect on the industry in general.  

 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39M on an unreported production budget; in all likelihood the movie broke even at best but most likely not.

 

FINAL RATING: 6/10

 

TOMORROW:  Waiting for “Superman”

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Heath Ledger unmasked.

(Sony Classics) Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare, Richard Riddell, Katie Lyons, Paloma Faith, Daniel Newman. Directed by Terry Gilliam

We all have out price, a weakness that can be exploited by the unscrupulous. However, keep in mind that when you make a deal with the devil, the consequences are almost always not what you expect them to be and the devil never gets the short end of the bargain.

Doctor Parnassus (Plummer) was once a humble monk of an order whose mission was to tell the story of the universe. They believed that as long as the story was being told, the universe would continue. The devil (Waits), or Mr. Nick as he prefers to be called, tries to disabuse Parnassus of the notion but is unsuccessful.

The devil, as we all know, is a bettin’ man and he wagers Doctor Parnassus that he can gather twelve disciples before Parnassus can with immortality the prize if Parnassus wins, which he does – although later he discovers that the wager was a trap and immortality not something wonderful, but a burden and a torture.

When Parnassus falls in love with a mortal woman, the devil allows Parnassus to adjust the bargain. The devil will make Parnassus young and mortal again in exchange for the soul of his firstborn daughter on her 16th birthday. Parnassus thinks he can trick the devil by not having any children but to his horror his wife becomes pregnant when she turns 60, dying in childbirth.

Valentina (Cole) knows nothing of this; she thinks her dad is an imaginative man who drinks too much. She is part of his traveling show along with the cautiously optimistic Anton (Garfield) who acts as a barker, and Percy (Troyer), the show’s all-around handyman and designated little person.

Valentina is three days short of her 16th birthday and Parnassus is getting desperate. The devil has been popping up to taunt the old man but eventually offers a new wager – the first one to gather five souls wins, with Valentina’s soul being the prize.

The troupe comes across a man hanging from Blackfriar’s Bridge in London with strange symbols written on his forehead. They rescue him despite the misgivings of Parnassus and Percy, only to discover he has no memory of who he is. Using arcane means, Parnassus discovers his name is Tony and that he once worked for a children’s charity.

The travelling show has not had many paying customers but Tony’s ideas to modernize the production and going to more upscale locations pays off. Doing so helps to bring in several people to be given a choice between doing the right thing and the easy thing – between the high road and the low road. This is done by entering Parnassus’ magic mirror, behind which is a fantasy landscape determined by the imagination of the person entering it. Inside the mirror, even the appearance of people changes. However, the clock is ticking and the devil is a persuasive man. Can Parnassus and Tony save Valentina by collecting five souls before time runs out?

Gilliam never fails to amaze. His movies are visual symphonies of the imagination, full of wonder and visual style. His storytelling can be all over the map, but if you are willing to let the film wash over you and absorb you, the sins of the filmmaker can be overcome.

One of the conceits of the tale is that those who enter the mirror must face a choice and indeed Gilliam had to face one of his own. Halfway through filming (with all of the exterior London scenes shot), his star Heath Ledger tragically passed away. Gilliam could either completely scrap the film (which he did once before with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote which ironically enough he is putting on film once again with cameras rolling this spring) or rewrite the script entirely. He and longtime writing partner Charles McKeown came up with the brilliant idea of changing the appearance of Tony inside the Imaginarium. Depp, Law and Farrell, all friends of Ledger, answered the call and would each play a different aspect of Tony inside various scenes in the mirror. Gilliam doesn’t bother to explain it other than with a few puzzled looks on the part of the actor playing Tony at the moment, and it works marvelously.

Ledger was on a roll after his career-making work as the Joker in The Dark Knight and this would have been, I suspect, another triumph for him had he lived. In his truncated role he is marvelous, playing a man with a great number of skeletons in his closet but with a great deal of charm. While Tony isn’t a villain per se, there is a villain inside him and while some might compare the part to the Joker, the two roles are quite different.

Plummer might be easy to overlook as Parnassus but that would be a mistake. The veteran actor turns in a marvelous performance as the tormented milleniumarian (is that even a word?) who salves his torment with drink. Garfield and Cole are very attractive in non-standard ways; I liked Garfield a great deal and with a bit of luck he could have a nice career ahead of him.

I was surprised by how well Troyer did here. Recently he has mostly been known for his appearances on VH1 reality shows that have shown him in a less than flattering light, but he does the best work of his career here. I hope that he gets some more roles of this kind after this. I’d also like to point out that Tom Waits makes a lovely Beelzebub (he has assumed the role in music videos for his own songs in the past). I’ve always been a big Tom Waits fan and any excuse to see him in a movie is all right by me.

The look of the film is rather rundown and grimy, what the Brits might call “a bit dodgy” which befits the disreputable Doctor himself. There is an almost Victorian feel to the show and the Imaginarium which, while not new to film, at least has a striking visual element all its own.

This won’t be remembered as a testament to Heath Ledger’s sadly short career (The Dark Knight will be) but this is a terrific film on its own merits. Morality plays, which this certainly is, are not as common now as they used to be, but in these shady times we could use more of them. When times are hard, the devil holds sway and we can use a Doctor Parnassus to show us the way to the high road.

REASONS TO GO: Terry Gilliam seems incapable of making an uninteresting film. Fine performances by Ledger, Plummer, Waits, Garfield and – surprise! – Troyer. Imaginative images abound in this film.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the visuals are too overwhelming. A definite Eww! factor when the supposedly 16-year-old Valentina has sex with a much older man.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, depictions of teen smoking and some sensuality. Might be a little much for younger kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Depp, Law and Farrell donated the money they made from the movie to Ledger’s daughter Matilda so that she may be secure in her economic future.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely one to see in a theater if you can find one showing it. It is certainly worth the effort to seek it out.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Stardust