17 October 2009

What Price Dreams

Technical issues persist here, but hopefully my readers will be pleased to know that my rant head is still in full working order. As for the new computer, it's been sent off for repairs and should be sorted soon, with any luck. Fortunately, I've seen some good films lately, including Zombieland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

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Zombieland appears to be another in a long line of knock-offs of Shaun of the Dead, which have been coming in a steady stream since Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright found great success on both sides of the pond with that film in 2004. Appearances aside, Ruben Fleischer's first major feature film is actually the only worthy contender to Shaun. In the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, the handful of survivors remaining in the United States roam the roads and generally try to avoid emotional ties, going so far as to name themselves only after their next destination. Our hero, headed for Columbus, has survived thus far by fastidiously following a rigid set of rules- rules that are compromised by the arrival of the gun-toting zombie-hating Tallahassee and a conniving pair of sisters called Wichita and Little Rock.

You really can't expect me to say this is better than Shaun of the Dead, because that's one of my favourite films of all time. But like that film, Zombieland is a film about people surviving the zombie apocalypse as opposed to the event itself. Large amounts of time go by, including most of the second half, without any zombies making an appearance whatsoever, and the film is the better for it. By ditching shock-horror tactics and the traditional social allegories attached to George A. Romero's zombie outings, Fleischer can better focus on characters, making this a very enjoyable horror comedy indeed. A great deal of the film's energy and charm can be attributed to the way the relatively small cast bring it to life- Jesse Eisenberg concerned me a little because as I said in my review of Adventureland, he reminded me a little of Michael Cera there, and the same is true of this film. As I've mentioned, I like Michael Cera, but he always plays the same kind of character, and I'm hoping Eisenberg will fulfil his potential and branch out a little.

With the rest of the cast, no complaints whatsoever- Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin both make an impression, but the real highlights are Woody Harrelson, who just has a whale of a time giving it every ounce of machismo and bad-assery he can muster, and the surprise cameo halfway through. If you still don't know who makes an appearance, please try to avoid finding out, because it's so much better when you don't know it's coming. It's a surreal and brilliant segment of the film and pretty much elevates cameo to high art- I can't see how any successor will cap it for hilarity and general... well, dementia. There's plenty for all to enjoy in Zombieland, gorehounds and comedy fans alike. While Pegg and Wright showed ordinary people surviving "Z-Day", Fleischer gives us an entertaining and fitting show of what might happen once you accept that zombies have taken over. Witty, occasionally demented and just laugh-out-loud brilliant.


A more divisive film currently playing in cinemas is Terry Gilliam's eagerly-anticipated and tongue-twistingly titled fantasy, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The majority of the film's marketing and appraisal has focused on the late Heath Ledger, given how he died halfway through principal photography. However, the film as a whole centres around the titular Doctor Parnassus, played by Christopher Plummer. He runs a carnival sideshow that allows customers to step through a magic mirror into his own imagination, which puts him into an ongoing game of one-upmanship with Mr. Nick, his devillish counterpart. The doctor's daughter, Valentina, is soon to turn 16, but little does she realise that when that day comes, a lost bet with Mr. Nick means her soul will be damned. The only hope is for Parnassus to enlist the help of a charming stranger to entice five souls to rejuvenation within his show, before Mr. Nick can entice the same number to eternal damnation.

Ledger plays the charming stranger of course, and because so much attention has been lavished upon him already, I'll get my appraisal of him out of the way first. As with his role in The Dark Knight, his performance as Tony is utterly magnetic- Ledger has a natural charm, and so in the short term, audiences might see the film as a sad reminder of how great he would have been if he'd survived long enough to fulfil his potential. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is naturally dedicated to him by Gilliam, who used the film's fantasy concept to work around the character's unfinished scenes with remarkable effect. This comes in the form of a device that employs three of Ledger's friends- Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law- to alternately complete filming without disrupting the film's continuity. For me, that was the most important thing, because this is a film that will be appraised as a whole rather than based on Heath Ledger- if you didn't know the circumstances, you might have felt that it was always the intention for Tony to be played by multiple actors.

I felt the standout performance of the film came from Christopher Plummer, one of those great older actors who really isn't in enough films these days. Additionally, Andrew Garfield and Lily Cole make themselves noticed rather well in a film that also has the aforementioned performance by Ledger, scene-stealing turns from Verne Troyer and Tom Waits, and of course Gilliam's own very distinct visual language. It's a morality tale, but the visuals look like one of Roald Dahl's cheese dreams. Gilliam's aesthetic sensibilities and flair for storytelling make this a film that may divide audiences somewhat, but that's surely par for the course from the director of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This is one of a rare breed since Harry Potter set that recurring trend for big-budget fantasy adaptations aimed at the broadest audience possible- it's an original fantasy film made for an older audience, and if you can enjoy fantasy without switching your brain off entirely, you'll probably love it. Everyone else will feel the film is a little flabby at its two hour running time, but hopefully you'll engage enough with the story that it flies by.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus had a troubled production, but the end result is something truly special. In my opinion, the credits' proclamation that it's "a film by Heath Ledger and friends" doesn't entirely do justice to everything that's on show here, but I realise that's something they felt necessary. What's important is that in time, the film will be reassessed on all of its merits and enjoyed as a thinking man's fantasy- it's almost certain to become a cult classic in the future.

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I'll be sure to visit the cinema again this week, most likely before my PC is repaired, but when I can access a PC I'll be bringing you reviews of Couples' Retreat, Triangle and Fantastic Mr. Fox. In the meantime, please comment below if you've seen either The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus or Zombieland and let me know what you thought of the film and of my review- I always like a bit of discussion and feedback.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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