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The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Directed by Terry Gilliam
This is a movie that will be seen for two reasons: The movie itself and morbid curiosity associated with the death of its star, Heath Ledger. Ledger had completed “The Dark Knight” and was shooting this when he died of an accidental drug overdose, leaving Director Terry Gilliam with half a movie, no lead actor, and an uncertain future for the project.  

Gilliam is still best known by some of us as the wacky animator for the original Monty Python shows. But he’s also an accomplished director of not just Python movies, but also “Brazil,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and “Twelve Monkeys,” amongst others. He’s also been trying to film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (currently back in production with Johnny Depp involved) for years, with a truly disastrous earlier attempt chronicled in the noteworthy documentary “Lost in La Mancha.” So he’s no stranger to adversity in production.

But a dead lead actor is extreme adversity. Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all stepped up and agreed to fill in for Ledger. Gilliam was able to make that work in a manner that is far more successful than it might sound. The story revolves around the ancient and mystical Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) who, we discover, has spent a great deal of time making questionable wagers and agreements with the Devil (Tom Waits). He currently drags a ragtag group around in an amazing horse-drawn sideshow in which audience members are able to pass through a magical mirror into imaginary worlds. This is where the heart of the film lies, in Gilliam’s extraordinary view of a fantasy world – one that makes you want to peak under the rocks and into the crevices of his very weird mind.

Into this arrives Tony Sheppard—played mainly by Ledger and, yes, that’s really the character’s name!—a mysterious stranger who falls in with this odd group and possibly has an agenda of his own.  

This is a very cool movie – both for the crazy visuals (Gilliam at his best) and for the extraordinarily effective writing that pulled such a winning outcome out of such tragic circumstances. It might be the morbid curiosity that drives you to see it, but the movie can capably take it from there.

The Lovely Bones

Directed by Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson’s first major directorial work since “King Kong” and the extraordinary “Lord of the Rings” movies comes with high hopes and expectations. Sadly, for me, none of these were realized. I enjoyed the radiance and acting of young lead Saoirse Ronan (Oscar nominated for her work as the younger sister in “Atonement”) but I can’t think of anything else about the film that I actually liked.

Ronan plays Susie Salmon, the central character and narrator for the story of her life.  That life that was cut short by murder, leaving her in a state of limbo while her family mourns her loss and deals, poorly, with the aftermath. It’s strange to see this limbo through Jackson’s eyes after seeing Gilliam’s take on imagination in “Dr. Parnassus” (above). Here it seems forced, as if one can see the gears in the minds of the designers. The end result is like a blend of “Mystic River” and “What Dreams May Come” (Robin Williams’ jaunt through a water-colored heaven), with a pacing that seems more like Shyamalan than Jackson (please don’t read that positively).

The story itself just didn’t work for me. The characters of the parents (a typically stiff Mark Wahlberg and an atypically stiff Rachel Weisz) never ring true, the grandmother (Susan Sarandon) is a walking sight gag, and the limbo and real world plotlines barely seem to benefit each other. I wanted to like this one, but it was like watching an experiment that widely missed the marky mark. (Opens January 15th)

The Spy Next Door

Directed by Brian Levant

Let’s be honest: Jackie Chan has a career because he’s a skilled martial artist. So skilled, in fact, that his virtual inability to speak English didn’t stop his career from getting off the ground or limit it, even as he struggled to learn the language. Until now, perhaps.

I’ve been a moderate fan of Chan’s – perhaps not on a par with Roger Ebert who seems to love everything Chan does, but I appreciate watching him jump through small openings, balance on teetering ladders, bounce from ledge to ledge, etc. It’s been impressive to see him do stunts without relying on wires, ropes, and cables. But when the skills and the stunts diminish with age, we’re left with limited language skills and weak acting that wouldn’t have justified the career.  

In a story about a Chinese spy on loan to the CIA who has to babysit his girlfriend’s kids, who hate him, while being targeted for assassination by painfully awful Russian criminals, it all gets a bit hard to watch. It makes one wonder whether the supporting actors were chosen to be bad enough to make Chan look better. Take your single-digit-aged kids to this and take a nap while they watch it. (Opens January 15th)

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