Friday, July 25, 2014

Dreamscape

The early 1980s was a great time for science fiction and fantasy films with 1982, in particular, being the highpoint. Coming out two years later, Dreamscape (1984) capitalized on this boom of genre movies as it was part of a mini-wave of motion pictures that dealt with the possibilities of the human mind that included Scanners (1981), The Dead Zone (1983) and Brainstorm (1983). Dreamscape was definitely on the pulpier end of the scale as it dabbled in conspiracies and the power of dreams. It was a film that fascinated a generation of impressionable kids dazzled by its then-cool special effects and memorable dream sequences, in particular, a scene where a character turns into formidable snakeman (an image that continues to haunt me). Dreamscape was one of those fascinating early ‘80s films that still had some residue of 1970s cinema (a distrust of the government) while looking ahead to the SFX blockbusters of the ‘80s.

Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) is a young man with extraordinary mental powers that include telekinesis. He escaped from a life of being a lab rat and now uses his abilities to win money betting on horses and having sex with women. This puts him at odds with local crooks who would like a cut of his winnings as an exciting early action sequence demonstrates. These guys are small-time compared to the two government types (Twin PeaksChris Mulkey and John Carpenter regular Peter Jason) who pick up Alex off the street and take him to Thornhill College where he’s reunited with his former mentor Dr. Paul Novotny (Max von Sydow) and his attractive assistant Jane DeVries (Kate Capshaw).

They want Alex to participate in a top secret project that would enable him to psychically project himself into someone else’s dreams and then become an active participant, shaping and altering the outcome. Alex is skeptical, but intrigued by this idea and Novotny’s passion for the project. He soon meets Tommy Ray Glatman (David Patrick Kelly), the first person to successfully enter someone’s dreams. He’s a cocky guy that sees Alex as a threat to his status as top dog in the project and is not afraid to let him know it. Alex becomes a believer when he enters a man’s dream of working construction on a skyscraper and tries in vain to save him from falling off a steel girder.


While Dr. Novotny believes in the project’s positive aspects, like helping people conquer their nightmares, there is Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) who works for the government and wants to use it for more insidious purposes. Along the way, Alex flirts with Jane, even entering her dreams in a sequence that treads dangerously close to a kind of mental rape, and uncovers a government conspiracy involving this project and the President of the United States (Eddie Albert).

Dennis Quaid plays his typical smartass self, complete with trademark shit eating grin. He’s well-cast as the cocky protagonist who refuses to play by the rules, but is ultimately a decent guy as evident in a scene where Alex goes into a young boy’s dreams and helping him vanquish his nightmare boogeyman. Quaid would favor variations of this kind of role in films like The Right Stuff (1983), Innerspace (1987), and The Big Easy (1987). The actor’s innate likability makes Alex easy to root for, even when he does some questionable things, like the aforementioned scene where Alex enters Jane’s dreams.

Character actor extraordinaire David Patrick Kelly’s first appearance is a memorable one as his character gets Alex out of the shower by making horrible noises with his saxophone. Kelly does a nice job of commanding the scene by pacing around the room, trying on Alex’s jacket, then admiring himself in the mirror, and generally making a pest of himself, which gives us all kinds of insight into Tommy. In this scene, Kelly sets up his character as Alex’s primary antagonist and a formidable one at that.


Max von Sydow provides the requisite gravitas as Alex’s mentor. He has a great voice, which he uses to maximum effect in conveying important exposition dialogue about the dream project. Kate Capshaw is under-utilized as Alex’s potential love interest with little else to do. Finally, Christopher Plummer exudes icy menace as a shady yet very powerful government agent with his own nefarious agenda.

In addition to tapping into unknown areas of the mind that were popular at the time, Dreamscape also touches upon fears of nuclear war that were prevalent in our culture as the President is plagued by increasingly apocalyptic nightmares. Director Joseph Ruben does a nice job juggling the science fiction aspects (the manipulation of dreams) with the conspiracy thriller elements (car chases) as they feed off each other. The screenplay gradually reveals Blair’s plans so that we find out things along with Alex, complete with a Deep Throat-esque figure played by George Wendt. His character encourages Alex to do his own digging and opens his eyes to Blair’s schemes.

Ruben maintains a brisk, engaging pace with rarely a dull moment as Alex heads towards an inevitable confrontation with Tommy in a show-stopping sequence that takes place in the President’s dreams. Dreamscape’s special effects were pretty cool at the time, mixing miniatures, prosthetic makeup, and stop-motion animation, but are quite dated now as evident in several sequences where it is glaringly obvious that actors are in front of a blue screen, which can be a bit distracting at times.


David Loughery sold his screenplay for Dreamscape to 20th Century Fox in 1980 where it sat on the shelf for a year until director Joseph Ruben discovered it and brought it to producer Bruce Cohn-Curtis who loved the concept of being able to enter someone’s dreams. When the project went into turnaround, Curtis bought it for an independent production. He and Ruben, along with screenwriters Loughery and Chuck Russell, reworked the script by developing the characters and adding more dreams so that the audience had, according to Loughery, “more reasons to care for the people and what happened to them.”

The budget was originally set at $1.5 million, but more money was added, increasing the budget to $5.5 million, as name actors like Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer were added to the cast. To prepare for the film, Ruben and Dennis Quaid visited a dream research center at UCLA and the production hired a psychic as a technical advisor.

There was a snag in the post-production phase when the filmmakers ran into problems with the special effects, which caused delays. Curtis admitted, “We weren’t as prepared as we should have been.” They only allowed two months for special effects preparation, which wasn’t enough time. For the various visual effects, the production hired Craig Reardon (Altered States) and Peter Kuran (The Empire Strikes Back) with the former doing the prosthetic makeup effects and stop-motion animation while the latter supervised the blue screen work on the dream sequences. They worked on Dreamscape for nine months with a third of the time devoted to the snakeman transformation that took place during the exciting climax. Reardon was not happy with all of the SFX created for the film: “I felt that some of the potential which was inherent in the script for Dreamscape was not realized.”


Dreamscape explores some fascinating notions involving the nature of dreams and our desire to be able to control them. It then goes one step further and hypothesizes the idea of being able to enter someone else’s dreams and either saving them or killing them – something that would be explored in two subsequent films, the artsy serial killer thriller The Cell (2000) and on a much bigger scale with Christopher Nolan’s industrial espionage cum heist film Inception (2010). Dreamscape also touches upon the ramifications of abusing this ability, showing its positive and negative aspects in an entertaining and engaging way.


SOURCES

Cleaver, Thomas McKelvey. “David Loughery: The Dreamer of Dreamscape.” Starlog. November 1984.


Lofficier, Randy & Jean-Marc. “Adventures in the Nightmare of Dreamscape.” Starlog. April 1984.


Check out these excellent reviews from fellow bloggers John Kenneth Muir, The Film Connoisseur, and Jeff Allard.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Black Stallion

The two action/adventure films that made the greatest impression on me as a young boy were The Black Stallion (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). While I’ve seen the latter countless times over the years, I realized recently that I hadn’t seen the former since my parents took me to see it in theaters back in 1979. How could this be? I seem to remember liking it enough that my folks bought me Walter Farley’s 1941 novel of the same name on which it’s based. It wasn’t exactly hard to find on home video or see occasionally on television. I recently caught up with the film Blu-Ray and was instantly taken back to when I first saw it as a child. I was also able to appreciate its artistry more now as an adult. The Black Stallion is beautifully shot – it’s basically an art house film for children, which is unthinkable in this day and age of noisy CGI animated movies and dumbed-down live-action fare. This is due in large part to the intelligent screenplay – written by Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William D. Wittliff – and the masterful direction of Carroll Ballard who got an incredibly sensitive performance out of a young boy by the name of Kelly Reno. The film was regarded as a unique anomaly when it came out and continues to be one of the most under-appreciated children’s films.

Alec Ramsay (Kelly Reno) is a young boy traveling with his father (Hoyt Axton) on a ship off the coast of North Africa in 1946. Ballard creates an exotic mood right from the get-go with Carmine Coppola’s low-key experimental score and Caleb Deschanel’s hand-held camerawork, popular in 1970s documentaries. Alec spots a majestic-looking Arabian stallion being treated poorly by its handlers. He goes below deck to tell his father about this wonderful horse, but he’s in a high stakes card game with some shifty-looking players. The young boy takes a bunch of sugar cubes and feeds them to the horse.

Later on, Alec’s father shows his son all the loot he won in the card game. Naturally, he pockets the money, but gives the boy a pocket knife and a figurine of Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s magical horse. In an enthralling scene, he tells Alec the story of how Alexander tamed and befriended Bucephalus, foreshadowing Alec’s relationship with “The Black,” the horse on the ship. Most of the dialogue spoken in the first half of The Black Stallion is done in this scene as Ballard relies on visual storytelling, which is quite effective in the harrowing sequence where the ship is sunk by severe weather. He does an excellent job of conveying the chaos that ensues as everyone frantically tries to escape the sinking ship via nightmarish lighting and disorienting camerawork. This is an intense scene for a children’s film as Alec and The Black narrowly escape.


Both of them wash up on a small, deserted island. Alec must first gain The Black’s trust and then over time they bond, surviving by their wits. There is no dialogue during these scenes as Ballard relies on Reno’s expressive face and the way he interacts with the horse to tell the story of their emerging friendship. This is enhanced by Coppola’s wonderfully minimalist score and Deschanel’s stunning cinematography that initially presents the island as an imposing, unforgiving environment to one that gradually becomes a beautiful haven, of sorts, as Alec and the horse become more familiar with their surroundings. This entire stretch of The Black Stallion resembles a children’s adventure film as if directed by Terrence Malick as we get one stunning shot of the sky and the island after another.

What really stands out in the first half of this film is the acting of first-timer Kelly Reno. Once Alec is stranded on the island with The Black, he has to convey a whole range of emotions – fear, sadness, and wonderment – and does so convincingly. In addition, he has to interact with this horse and make us believe that they are developing an unbreakable bond. This is not an easy task for a seasoned actor much less an inexperienced child, but the lack of formal training actually works to Reno’s advantage, giving his performance an authentic feel.

I like how Ballard shows Alec’s resourcefulness on the island. For example, he shows how the boy tries to catch a fish or builds a fire for warmth or collects seaweed for The Black to eat. He also does a nice job of gradually showing Alec and the horse becoming friends. Despite saving each other’s lives early on, the horse is understandably wary of the boy, only knowing cruelty at the hands of humans. There is almost a nature documentary feel to these scenes as Ballard’s camera plays close attention to the horse’s behavior. He is fascinated by how The Black acts and in turn so are we. It is something he would return to again only with wolves in the equally impressive Never Cry Wolf (1983). There’s nothing forced or cutesy about the relationship between Alec and the horse. There is, at times, a playful quality, like when Ballard films the boy riding The Black for the first time, capturing it almost entirely from an underwater point-of-view. However, for the most part, this is a heartfelt and sincere story about two characters and it’s hard not to get caught up in their adventure.


As most critics at the time of its release noted, because the first half of The Black Stallion is so bold in its unconventional storytelling, the second half is a little anticlimactic as Alec and The Black are rescued and return home where they cross paths with Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney), a veteran horse trainer who is coaxed out of self-imposed retirement by the young boy to prepare both of them for a big race. Mickey Rooney brings his trademark charm to the role while delivering a nicely understated performance as a man whose passion for racing is reignited by Alec and his mysterious horse. There is an almost haunting look of defeat on Rooney’s face when we first meet Henry, but this soon gives way to joy as he dusts off all his techniques and imparts his knowledge on the boy. These scenes take a fascinating look at what needs to be done to train not just a horse, but a rider for a race.

There was plenty of behind-the-scenes drama that took place during the making of The Black Stallion. Francis Ford Coppola was so taken with Walter Farley’s novel that he bought the rights to the entire series, envisioning sequels and possibly a T.V. series. He asked fellow UCLA classmate Carroll Ballard to develop a film adaptation with editor Walter Murch. Both Ballard and Murch found the book lacking originality and was too sentimental for their tastes. Ballard said, “I really didn’t like the book that much. I thought it was kind of a Leave It to Beaver story.” He and Murch told Coppola how they felt, which angered him. Coppola told the two men that if they didn’t like the project they could quit.

Ballard, probably realizing that this was only real shot at directing a film, stuck with it, but his friction with Coppola continued into pre-production as they disagreed over the screenplay. Melissa Mathison, one of the screenwriters, said of Ballard, “There would have been absolutely no words in The Black Stallion if he could have managed it. The meaning and feeling had to be in the picture – more photograph than moving picture.” Producers Tom Sternberg, Fred Roos and Ballard traveled to England, Morocco, Egypt and the United States looking for the right Arabian stallion to portray The Black. They found Cass Ole in San Antonio, Texas. In addition, three other horses were trained to do other things like fighting and running. Before filming began, the four horses underwent an 11-week training session. Each horse was trained to do different things so that by the start of filming the production had a loving horse, a bucking horse, a wild horse, and a race horse. Kelly Reno grew up riding horses on his parents’ 10,000-acre Colorado ranch. His mother heard about an open audition for The Black Stallion and entered her son who was chosen for the much-sought after role. He joined the training for several weeks so that he could develop a rapport with Cass Ole.


Sardinia, Italy was chose for the island sequences because of its breathtaking coastal areas and Toronto, Canada because it closely resembled the eastern seaboard of the U.S. in the late 1940s. Ballard started filming in 1977, but felt that Coppola interfered with principal photography. Bad weather was a problem during the entire Canadian shoot with the summer of ’77 being one of the rainiest and hottest on record. One day’s temperature was recorded at 115 degrees! The Sardinia shoot had its own unique logistical problems with its remote location and challenging terrain. Camera equipment had to be hand-carried in and out of the site. The sinking of the ship was recreated in a large outdoor water tank at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. An actual-sized passenger ship – the largest ever created for that tank – was built.

During principal photography, Ballard adopted an improvisational approach that upset several of the Canadian crew members. The Toronto crew that worked on The Black Stallion while filming in Canada was used to the fast working methods of T.V. production and according to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Ballard “wanted to be able to change his mind and shoot what he felt like shooting,” which turned out to be a very Terrence Malick-esque way of filming. Even Deschanel had his doubts about Ballard’s style of directing. The two men had worked together on some documentary films previously and so when it came to make his feature film debut, Ballard enlisted Deschanel’s expertise.

After principal photography ended, The Black Stallion began an equally turbulent post-production phase. Francis Ford Coppola originally envisioned an unconventional score and brought in jazz and classical artist William Russo, but he quickly got into disagreements with Ballard over the musical approach to be taken and the composer quit without writing a note! Carmine Coppola (Francis’ father) composed a score, but Ballard demanded so many re-writes that he ended up alienating the composer from the project. Ballard brought in Shirley Walker to develop a new underscore for some of the film’s more intimate sequences, like the ones on the island and ended up alienating her as well. Things got so bad that the director ended up rewriting multiple cues for the final edits of the film.

The Black Stallion sat on the shelf for two years! United Artists executives claimed it was unreleasable because they felt it was an art film for kids. Finally, in 1979, Coppola used his clout to get it released. The film enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The first hour of this movie belongs among the great filmgoing experiences. It is described as an epic, and earns the description.” Pauline Kael said it was “one of the rare movies that achieves a magical atmosphere. Seeing it is like being carried on a magic carpet; you don’t want to come down. (it may be the greatest children’s movie ever made.)” The Los Angeles Times’ March Chalon Smith wrote, “You can forgive the film’s second half and its bowing to the push-button emotions of Hollywood; the first half of The Black Stallion, is so graceful it approaches the essence of a wonderful dream.” People magazine called it, “a lyrical film, exploding with beauty.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Ballard’s direction, of a story designed to excite the viewer’s imagination and curiosity, instead stifles these feelings by emphasizing the cosmetic value of every frame.”


Even though it is easy to figure out how The Black Stallion will end, Ballard manages to wring every ounce of tension out of the climactic race, and does little to diminish the emotional impact. So many films that involve animals are full of silly slapstick or are rife with sappy sentimentality. The Black Stallion is refreshingly devoid of either. It is a sincere children’s film that can also be appreciated by adults who will marvel at its craftsmanship while still getting caught up in the engrossing story and the relationship between its two engaging lead characters. Ballard’s film was even better than I remember it being those many years ago. It transcends any notions of personal nostalgia and should be regarded as an under-appreciated masterpiece.


SOURCES

The Black Stallion – One Tough Movie.” Arabian Horse-World. April 1978.

LoBrutto, Vincent and Harriet R. Morrison. The Coppolas: A Family Business. Praeger. 2012.

Silberg, Joel. “The Right Stuff.” American Cinematographer. January 2010.

Sragow, Michael. “E.T. Turns Thirty.” The New Yorker. October 3, 2012.

Takis, John. “Liner Notes.” The Black Stallion: Intrada Special Collection CD.


Wulff, Jennifer. “Horse Power.” People. September 17, 2001.


Here's a link to the official site of the books and that has an excellent section on the film.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Moonstruck

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This article originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog as part of their Great Romantic Movies countdown.

It took a Canadian filmmaker to make Moonstruck (1987), the quintessential Italian-American romantic comedy from a screenplay written by an Irish-American playwright, but then isn’t that what the American experience is all about? For what is the United States, but the great melting pot? Norman Jewison’s film is a celebration of love, life and food. John Patrick Shanley’s script is full of romantic yearnings for, among many things, the opera and, of course, the moon. Above all else, the film places an emphasis on the importance of family. Moonstruck was the My Big Fat Geek Wedding (2002) of its day only infinitely better and about an Italian family as opposed to a Greek one. Watching Jewison’s film again, you realize just how much Nia Vardalos’ romantic comedy is heavily indebted to it. If Moonstruck is La Boheme than Greek Wedding is Tony and Tina’s Wedding.

Loretta Castorini (Cher) is engaged to Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello). They act like an old married couple and they haven’t even tied the knot yet! And therein lies the problem – their relationship lacks passion. He is called away suddenly to Italy to see his mother on her deathbed and asks Loretta to invite his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to their wedding. Ronny works in a bakery and is bitter over having lost his hand in a freak accident, blaming Johnny for what happened. In a classic case of opposites attracting, Loretta and Ronny find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other.

At the time, Nicolas Cage was considered an odd casting choice because of his reputation as an eccentric character actor. The way he gestures and enunciates certain words is off-kilter in such a way that it gives his scenes a wonderfully unpredictable vibe. He makes unusual choices and surprisingly they all work. Cage delivers a very physical, Brando-esque performance only filtered through his very distinctive style of acting as evident in the scene where Ronny and Loretta meet for the first time. Cage is fascinating to watch for the unusual choices he makes. Ronny paces around the room, starting his rant quietly before gradually building in intensity, punctuating his impassioned speech with words like, “huh” and “sweetie.” Jewison orchestrates the actor beautifully through editing so that the scene has an absolutely captivating rhythm as we gain insight into Ronny’s character. Cage conveys an impressive range of emotions as Ronny goes from pride to rage to sadness.


He plays well off of Cher and they have the kind of chemistry that is so important for this kind of film. His fiery, Method approach works well in contrast to Cher’s more controlled style and their scenes together crackle with the intensity of two actors with very different approaches bouncing off each other. Ronny is a wounded animal, “a wolf without a foot,” as Loretta puts it, and she is “a bride without a head,” as he tells her, but over the course of the film she transforms him into a civilized human being. She brings out the romantic who likes to dress up and go to the opera. Cher does a wonderful job of immersing herself in the character of Loretta, a strong-willed, smart woman who thinks she has it all figured out until she meets Ronny. On the surface, Loretta may seem like a cynic, but she has taken what she feels is a more realistic approach towards love because of the death of her previous husband. She has chosen to marry Johnny not because she loves him, but because he’s a safe bet. Her heart has fallen asleep only to be awakened by Ronny. Cher won a well-deserved Academy Award for her performance as a widow who, against her better judgement, falls in love again. Watching her in this film reminds one how natural an actress she is and what a crime it is that she doesn’t act more often.

Cage and Cher are well supported by a fantastic cast of colorful character actors. Vincent Gardenia plays Loretta’s cheap father Cosmo who has a lover on the side and Olympia Dukakis is Rose, her wise mother full of world-weary pearls of wisdom, like when she tells her daughter about men: “When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can.” There’s an air of sadness to her character as Rose seems to have resigned herself to a life where every day is the same. Then there’s Feodor Chaliapin, Jr. as Loretta’s grandfather who can be seen in several scenes walking his small fleet of mangy dogs and seems to be used as merely window-dressing until Jewison gives him a pivotal moment towards the end of the film.

The film’s secret weapon is Danny Aiello as mama’s boy Johnny. From hysterical crying to the way he interacts with Cher’s Loretta, his portrayal of Johnny is a master class in comedic acting. Johnny thinks he knows something about men and women (“A man who can’t control his woman is funny.”), but is quickly put in his place by Loretta. Aiello does wonders with throwaway bits of dialogue like, “My scalp is not getting enough blood sometimes,” as Johnny tells Loretta over dinner while vigorously rubbing his hair. He doesn’t mug per se, but rather plays it straight in a way that makes his character look ridiculous via tiny gestures or through a specific facial expression. Compared to someone like Cage, you know Aiello has no chance with Cher, but the actor plays it like Johnny believes they are going to get married all the way through the film.


There are superb recurring gags, like John Mahoney’s sad university professor who keeps striking out with younger women that throw wine in his face midway through dinner before storming out of the restaurant. While his character is a bit of a Lech, Mahoney’s expressive eyes convey a sadness that makes you feel somewhat sympathetic for him. There’s a nice scene between his character and Rose where they end up having dinner together at the restaurant after he’s publicly embarrassed yet again by his latest young lady friend (Canadian actress Cynthia Dale in a small role). It’s a lovely scene between two lonely people as they talk honestly about their lives and she asks him, “Why do men chase women?” He has no good answer and she tells him, “I think it’s because they fear death.” It kickstarts a fascinating conversation that allows us to understand these two people. Every time I watch Moonstruck I imagine an offshoot film that follows Rose and the professor as they run off together or perhaps have a brief affair.

The use of location is excellent. For example, the opening shot is of Lincoln Center (which features prominently later on) in New York City so we know exactly where we are. Most of the film is set in Brooklyn and Jewison conveys an almost tactile feel for the borough. You want to be there and know these people. You also get a real sense of community. The warm, inviting lighting of the Italian restaurant where Johnny proposes to Loretta and where her mother has dinner with Mahoney’s professor has a wonderful, intimate atmosphere made up of warm reds and contrasting greens that puts you right there. There is another scene where Loretta looks out the window at the full moon in the night sky and the lighting is perfect with just the right music that results in such a touching, poignant moment. No words are spoken because none are needed with such visuals.

Moonstruck received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “I was struck by how subtle and gentle it is, despite all the noise and emotion. How it loves its characters, and refuses to limit their personalities to a few comic traits.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “They’re an irresistibly offbeat couple – Cage playing on the edge, where he likes it; Cher creating a fairy tale realist, captivating yet cautious. He looks like the bastard son of Mama Celeste and Wile E. Coyote, and she, as the camera romances her Mediterranean features, is Mona Lisa in heavy mascara.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Sheila Benson wrote, “They come from Shanley’s gorgeous dialogue: the tart, real talk of people who’ve lived together their lives long, filtered through a poet’s sensibility.” The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel wrote, “Cher is the nominal star of what turns out to be a terrific ensemble piece about a bunch of tough-as-nails Italian characters living in New York.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Moonstruck clearly means to celebrate all things Italian. However, it creates the false but persistent impression that most of the people who made it have never been closer to Italy than, perhaps, Iowa.”



As much as the 1980s was typified by Wall Street’s (1987) Gordon Gekko and his “Greed is good” mantra, Moonstruck is about blue-collar people. It pays tribute to folks that represent the glue of society, showing us bookkeepers, bread makers, liquor store owners, plumbers and so on plying their trade. The characters in this film may lead workaday jobs, but their personal lives are anything but average. Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Moonstruck does heighten ethnic stereotypes for comedic effect, but the latter film does so sincerely and with class. Moonstruck perpetuates a lot of Italian stereotypes, but not in a grating way, playfully making fun of some of them while celebrating others with affection. Far from being a bundle of ethnic clich├ęs, it is a celebration of the Italian-American experience. The crucial difference between the two films is tone. Where Greek Wedding is all cuddly, feel good sitcom, Moonstruck has some bite to it, an edge as represented by Cage’s passionate performance. This film is full of fantastic acting and much pleasure comes from watching a very talented cast speak brilliantly written dialogue. Best of all it has a wonderful sense of romantic naivete, a cinematic love letter to New York City.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

It is rather unfortunate that since his masterful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Terry Gilliam has struggled to not only get funding for his films, but to get them made at all. From the compromised The Brothers Grimm (2005) to the little-seen Tideland (2005), fans of this idiosyncratic auteur have often had to endure agonizingly lengthy intervals between films as he has found Orson Welles’ famous quote about filmmaking – “It’s about two percent movie-making and 98% hustling.” – to be painfully true. After the unevenness of the aforementioned films, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) was seen as a return to form with Gilliam writing an original screenplay with long-time collaborator Charles McKeown (Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). The end result was vintage Gilliam who was able to cut loose and let his fantasy film freak flag fly free. However, it came at a terrible price when his leading man, Heath Ledger, died suddenly partway through production, which was subsequently temporarily suspended until Gilliam was able to come up with some creative tweaking. He enlisted Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to complete Ledger’s scenes and finish Gilliam’s labor of love.

A ramshackle traveling roadshow makes its way through the dirty streets of London, England (the shots of homeless people sleeping on the street evokes Gilliam’s ode to them in The Fisher King) before stopping outside a nightclub under a bridge. It is part-theater (with cheap sets reminiscent of the play put on in Baron Munchausen) and part-magic show as the benign Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) offers some kind of New Age-y promise of fulfillment. When a drunken club kid makes some crude sexual advances towards his teenage daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), she takes him through a mirror that acts as a gateway to a surreal magical world allowing Gilliam to cut loose with his trademark flights of fancy. A person’s experience in this realm reflects their personality and so a self-absorbed little boy finds himself in a slightly menacing version of Candyland.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus resembles Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) in that all three films feature a scrappy small group of outsiders that dwell on the fringes of society and barely get by on their unique skills. Gilliam takes us behind the curtain to show how this small group of dreamers ekes out an existence. Anton (Andrew Garfield) serves as the master of ceremonies, of sorts, and is sweet on Valentina who dreams of leading a normal life. Percy (Verne Troyer) is Parnassus’ confidant and comic relief as well as driver of their caravan. Unbeknownst to Valentina, her father made a deal with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) a.k.a. The Devil: in exchange for being granted immortality, he must give him any child of his when they turn 16 years of age. Valentina is only three days from this age and Parnassus tries to figure some way out of it.

Possible salvation comes in the form of a mysterious stranger that Anton and Valentina rescue from a hangman’s noose under a bridge. He (Heath Ledger) eventually wakes up scared, disoriented and suffering from amnesia. Parnassus is convinced that he’s been sent by Mr. Nick as a way to change their agreement. Nevertheless, he takes the man in and makes him part of the troupe, Valentina dubbing him George, but whom we son learn is actually Tony Shepherd who runs a sizable charity. His job is to recruit a potential audience and turns out to be quite adept at fleecing people of their spare change.

Christopher Plummer brings a world-weary gravitas to Parnassus. Throughout the film he makes you wonder if his character genuinely has magical abilities or if he is merely a charlatan who resorts to age-old con man tricks. Parnassus does love his daughter and will do anything to keep her from Mr. Nick’s clutches even if it means taking five souls – too bad he’s not very good at it. Much like the Baron in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Sam Lowry in Brazil (1985), and Parry in The Fisher King (1991), Parnassus is a dreamer who believes in “the power of the imagination to transform and illuminate our lives.”

Heath Ledger was a versatile actor that could move effortlessly back and forth form big studio films like The Dark Knight (2008) and small independent films like Candy (2006). The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is somewhere in-between and the actor immerses himself with trademark gusto. Tony is the audience surrogate – the most “normal” of any of the characters, but he soon fits in seamlessly with this ragtag troupe. Ledger plays Tony as a passionate smooth-talker that, in one memorable scene, persuades a female mall shopper to enter the Imaginarium. Tony is a meaty role for the actor to sink his teeth into, allowing him to be broad and theatrical and also to bring it down in intimate scenes. In what could have been a jarring change turns out to be a fantastic decision to have Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell portray the Imaginarium incarnations of Tony. They each use their own unique type of charisma to convey Tony’s seductive powers of persuasion.

Tom Waits brings a wonderfully droll sense of humor to the role of Mr. Nick. He portrays a mischievous trickster patiently biding his time until he can take Valentina as per his deal with Parnassus. Waits has a blast playing this deliciously amoral character his scenes with Plummer crackle with a playful energy. A pre-The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) Andrew Garfield is good as Anton, the M.C. who is relegated to a background role when Tony takes over and becomes jealous of how the enigmatic interloper charms Valentina.

As you would expect from a Gilliam film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus features some breathtaking visuals, like the immense, snowswept monastery that Parnassus lived in many years ago or the grungy, noisy streets of London, which demonstrates the director’s versatility of working in largely imagined worlds while also utilizing actual locations. The obvious artificiality of the Imaginarium sequences is reminiscent of the Moon sequence in Baron Munchausen. It isn’t that Gilliam had to make due with substandard special effects, but that the obvious lo-tech look of some scenes is intentional as he indulges in his love of the theater. Not surprisingly, the Imaginarium is a surreal realm that follows a kind of dream logic and so you have things like a song and dance number with burly policemen wearing dresses and twirling truncheons.

The film’s central theme concerns the lost art of telling a good story, which is best summed up by Parnassus when he tells Mr. Nick, “Somewhere in this world, right now, someone else is telling a story, a different story, a saga, a romance, a tale of unforeseen death – it doesn’t matter … You can’t stop stories being told,” to which the dapper antagonist deadpans, “That’s a weak hypothesis.” In fact, Parnassus believes so much in it that he makes a deal with the Devil so that he can tell stories forever. Unfortunately, in contemporary times it is harder and harder to find people who want to hear a story being told what with the myriad of modern conveniences that compete for our time be it social media or cell phones.


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus champions the power of imagination and the art of telling a good story – something that we are in dire need of in an age where our lives are increasingly dominated by technology and our attentions spans are fragmented by a myriad of distractions. Gilliam believes in good ol’ fashion storytelling. As always, the cynic and the romantic are at odds in Gilliam’s films and this one is no different. Sometimes, the cynical ending wins out as with 12 Monkeys (1995) and sometimes it’s the romantic on as with The Fisher King. What sides does Parnassus go with? Ah, well, as a little boy asks late in the film, “Does it come with a happy ending?” to which Percy replies, “Sorry, we can’t guarantee that.”