Cold Souls


Cold Souls

David Strathairn shows an amazed Paul Giamatti what a soul looks like; being in Hollywood, he's never seen one before.

(2009) Sci-Fi Dramedy (Goldwyn) Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Emily Watson, Dina Korzun, Lauren Ambrose, Katheryn Winnick, Rebecca Brooksher, Michael Tucker, Armand Schultz, Boris Kievsky, Gregory Korostishevsky. Directed by Sophie Barthes

What is our soul, really? Is it just a concept, as ephemeral as a thought? Or is it something real and tangible, something that can be made physical and as such, something that can be removed if need be?

Paul Giamatti (playing himself – kind of) is an actor who has been lauded for many performances and is currently taking on the role of Uncle Vanya in a Broadway production of the Chekhov play. It’s meant to be a comedy, but Paul is having issues. He is feeling too much and his performance is suffering.

He reads an article in the New Yorker about a service in which souls may be extracted and stored. Intrigued, he meets up with the man behind it, Dr. Flintstein (Strathairn) who assures him that the procedure is painless and safe. After some reluctance on his part at first, Paul finally decides to do it.

The operation is as promised; brief, painless and safe. At first, it’s like a great weight taken off of his shoulders. Surprisingly, whereas souls took all sorts of odd shapes and sizes, Paul’s looks very much like a chick pea – or garbanzo bean if you prefer. Such a small thing, Paul muses, but such a great weight it carries with it.

At first things are swell. But as time passes, things are not swell, as things often become. Soon, Paul’s wife Claire (Watson) – whom he never informed about his procedure – notices a change in Paul’s personality. So does the director (Tucker) of the play, which is very disturbing as they are days away from opening and Paul is clearly not even close to ready. It seems that Paul’s soul was necessary after all and he returns to the clinic to have it re-installed.

Except it’s missing. As it turns out, there is a high demand for black market American souls in Russia and a mule named Nina (Korzun) has taken Paul’s soul, thinking it was Al Pacino’s, for the girlfriend (Winnick) of a Russian mobster who yearns to be a movie star. Paul must journey to Moscow to retrieve his stolen soul in the company of a sympathetic Nina, who has elements of all the soul’s she’s carried within her, including Paul’s. However he’ll have to brave the wrath of a Russian gangster and the bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union if he’s to get his real soul back.

Not many would tackle souls as a subject for a movie in a Hollywood that is politically correct, for fear of offending the religious right or the non-religious left. In that sense, Barthes is an equal opportunity offender here but I don’t get that’s her actual goal.

She’s gathered a decent cast around her. Giamatti is an Oscar-nominated actor, one who has been giving consistently strong performances nearly every time out since his coming out party for Sideways back in 2004. He’s not playing himself, really – he’s playing a character here loosely based on himself – or at least looking a lot like himself – but maybe more of what he perceives others perceive him as. I know that sounds confusing but don’t think about it too much and you’ll get used to him being addressed with his real name onscreen.

Strathairn is also one of the best character actors of his generation, one who projects competence and character in every role. While his part is essentially comedic, he lends a bit of – not gravitas precisely, but legitimacy in any case. As always, even in a part that might not necessarily demand it, he gives a smart performance.

Watson, who I’ve barely mentioned in the description of the plot, manages to make the most of her brief appearance. She is understanding and devoted to the point of ferocity to her somewhat quirky husband. She comes off as a somewhat ideal wife and that in itself can make for a bland performance, but she is far from that here. As a critic, I appreciate that she took a role that lends itself to being taken for granted and makes it shine. I also liked Korzun’s performance as the sympathetic soul mule. It may have taken the souls of others for her to develop a conscience but Korzun makes Nina’s change from amoral employee to sympathetic assistant to Giamatti a fluid and organic one.

I have a thing about movies that make you think, and this one is one of those. Director Barthes, who also wrote the script, is offering up a debate about a subject not often tackled by the movies because of the religious implications. What is the soul? What makes it important? What does it look like? How can it be changed? What happens to us when it does?

Big questions deserve big answers and sadly, none are forthcoming here. The problem with the movie is that it is VERY cerebral but it really leaves the debate in the theater and not on the screen. Because it’s so very thought-provoking, it takes it’s time getting itself established and the whole Russian mobster sub-plot felt a bit misguided. Still, it’s a smart and at times very funny exploration of a subject that’s so rarely tackled in ANY medium that the filmmakers get a couple of points just for attempting it. I’m looking forward to more movies that provoke this kind of debate from Ms. Barthes.

WHY RENT THIS: A unique concept, well-executed. Fine performances from Giamatti, Strathairn and Watson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: So overly cerebral that at times the movie drags.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality as well as some fairly mature concepts. The language can get a little rough too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The entire movie was inspired by a dream that Woody Allen had in which he discover his soul resembles a garbanzo bean.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a three-minute featurette on the design and construction of the soul extractor.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: In a Better World (Haevnen)

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