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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)


Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Jude Law
Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenwriter: Terry Gilliam, Charles McKeown
Rating : PG-13 for violent images, some sensuality, language and smoking.

Terry Gilliam is an artist. And like any artist, he stays true to his vision, no matter how extravagant or bizzare. And, as is the case with any artist’s work, we the audience, reserve the right to love it, or hate it, just as the artist reserves the right to not really care what we think. That’s how I’ve always pictured Terry Gilliam’s affair with cinema. Some might call it arrogance or self-sufficiency, but I wouldn’t go that far. His vision is sometimes so outrageous, that a second viewing would be out of the question for almost any viewer. I particularly felt this way when I saw his “Tideland” (2005), a movie that to this day I can’t be sure if I hated or loved, just that despite its originality, before the rising of Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”, I don’t think I’ll be seeing it again. On the other hand, he can only submit his will to his vision, so what I, or anyone else, thought of that particular movie, whether loved or despise, is completely irrelevant.

So, I was more than a little suspicious as I started watching “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”. I was, of course, aware this was Heath Ledger’s very last (incomplete even) movie, and that Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law accepted to complete Ledger’s part, with the help of some very clever rewrites, so the first time Ledger appears on-screen, it felt extremely eerie. A feeling that could only serve a film like this.

Though bizzare in a very Gilliam kind of way, the story is actually surprisingly straight-forward. Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is an immortal monk, who travels in a horse-driven sideshow caravan along with his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole) and his two aides, sharing the beauty of imagination to the world. He carries a terrible burden though, that of having gambled with the Devil (Tom Waits) and lost. The price is the soul of his daughter, which he must surrender to the prince of darkness on her 16th birthday. His luck seems to change when they encounter Tony (Heath Ledger), a charismatic swindler, just in time for a new wager with the Devil, which Parnassus hopes will save his daughter.

The gimmick of the story is the Imaginarium, a world which Parnassus can conjure, a world of dreams and imagination (with lots of help from a modern director’s best friend, CGI) tailored around the fabric of the person who enters it. The visual effects are a lot of fun, particularly because there’s a smart concept behind them. As a way to work around the fact that Ledger never finished his scenes, the script was altered so that whenever Tony enters the imaginarium, he appears as a different person each time (Depp, Farrell, Law), him being a swindler, thus a man of a thousand faces, none of them real. I would dare say the script works even better this way, though it is unfortunate that Ledger did not complete his work.

As far as Gilliam’s overall vision is concerned, I was expecting something wildly excentric, but as I mentioned before, the story, underneath the usual visual extravaganza and Oscar-nominated art direction, is quite pleasant and easy to sit through. It has the feel of a modern fairy tale and is a lot of fun to let yourelf carried away by it. The acting is top-notch, with Ledger apparently still bearing echoes of the Joker (little gestures and some line delivery). Plummer is particularly impressive, and after such a long carreer, it’s nice to see he’s still got it (he also nabbed an Oscar nom this year for The Last Station).

“The Imaginarium…” is great imaginative fun, full of everything that makes a movie a great thrilling ride. If from seeing the trailers you feel the movie is just too bizzare or just for kids, fear not, for this is Terry Gilliam’s most fun and easy movie, yet still creepy in a way that I don’t think children might enjoy.



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Drag Me to Hell (2009)


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9

Starring : Alison Lohman, Justin Long, David Paymer, Lorna Raver
Director : Sam Raimi
Screenwriter : Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi
Rating : PG-13 for sequences of horror violence, terror, disturbing images and language.

A lot of people have been eagerly awaiting the day when Sam Raimi would leave Spiderman behind and go back to his horror roots. And yes, that day has come. ”Drag Me to Hell” is in a way the spiritual sequel to his “Evil Dead” series, and a return to full form for the master of demon trouble. Definetly a good thing after his atrocious mess of a movie, “Spiderman 3”.

The victim of evil forces this time is a young woman, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman). She’s a loan officer at a Los Angeles bank and very close to getting a promotion, if, as her boss (David Paymer) puts it, she can prove she’s ready to make some tough decisions. One of those tough decisions walks through the door that very day in the form of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver), an old gispy woman who needs an extension on her mortgage. This is just the opportunity Christine needs to prove herself. She denies her the extension. Mrs. Ganush begins to beg on her kness, Christine calls security and the old woman feels she’s been humiliated. Next thing Christine knows, she’s being attacked in the underground parking lot by the now demonic incarnation of the old woman, who lays a curse on her. The curse is one of terrible consequence, as Christine finds out from Rham Jas (Dileep Rao), a fortune teller : the demon Lamia will toy with her for 3 days, and then will drag her to hell where she will enjoy the usual eternal torment, unless she can find a way to break the curse. Bummer for Christine.

This is the perfect set up for Raimi to go to town on Christine. The film is relentless in its scares, and it’s one nightmarish scene after another. The film wasn’t even rated R (though there is an Unrated version out there as usual), but it still packs a punch, to Raimi’s credit without any gore, but some really disturbingly disgusting moments that will make you squirm in your favourite chair. There are unsettling moments that play with the classic cliches of demon attacks, providing scares that seem to come out of nowhere. You can use the fingers on one hand to count the quiet, demon-free moments in this 99-minute scream-fest. But it’s also very tongue-in-cheek, so there’s a feeling of relief at times, even comic-relief, but then it gets all spooky again and you don’t feel like laughing anymore…that is until a possessed man starts dancing in mid-air.

The effects are really cool-looking and Raimi’s signature camera-work adds a lot of frantic edginess to the action. The CGI sometimes ruins the disgusting bits, but that won’t make much of a difference (it might even be a relief). You never actually see the demon in full FX. It always finds ways to twist Christine’s world to the point of driving her insane, so there’s never a sense of CGI overpowering the atmosphere. And did I mention there’s no gore ?

The story focuses a lot on Christine, so we never get too much insight on the other characters. The most interesting of the is her boyfriend Clay (Justin Long), who is unusually supportive of her, even though he doesn’t believe in demons. What does he know, right ? But this is esentially a showdown between the leading lady and the evil spirit, much in the same way that “Evil Dead” was about Bruce Campbell facing off with the forces of darkness. It’s not about ensemble work, so don’t expect any solid or notable supporting characters. Alison Lohman does stand up to the challenge wonderfully in keeping herself convincing not just as the nice girl, but especially as the paranoid victim of a relentless demon. She’s likable, determined and surprisingly resilient, just what the horror audience demands from a heroine. Her boss demanded of her to be tough and the irony of her character is that, by the end of it all, she’ll be making all kinds of hellish decisions.

“Drag Me to Hell” is a deliciously wicked horror, packed with scares and action. If you’ve been a fan of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” trilogy, or maybe “The Exorcist”, or you’re just looking for a thrill ride, then this is the film for you.

Trick ‘r Treat (2008)


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9

Starring : Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Dylan Baker, Leslie Bibb
Director/Writer: Michael Dougherty
Rating : R for horror violence, some sexuality/nudity and language.

Here’s the perfect example of an overlooked gem. This film had a real tough time making its way into the hands of the public. Though it was supposed to be released on Halloween  2007, Warner Bros decided to withdraw it and reschedule it. Two years had passed and still no release date, so the studios decided to dump it as a direct-to-DVD release. And since Halloween was just a couple of days ago, this reviewer decided to get himself into the spirit of All Hallows’ Eve.

The plot interweaves four separate stories that take place on Halloween night, in a tight narrative similar to “Pulp Fiction”. There is the murderous principal Wilkins who enjoys Halloween perhaps a bit too much, five teenagers who bring an homage to the victims of what is known as the “School Bus Massacre”, Laurie, a 22-year old virgin dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, on a mission to find boys, and Mr. Kreeg, the old man that hates Halloween in a very “Scrooge” kind of way, and is about to get a close encounter of the painful kind with the Halloween spirit. I will not go to more detail about the plot, since A) there’s too much fun to be had from discovering the story while watching the film, and B) there are complete and very spoilerish synopsises on Wikipedia or IMDb.

Why am I so enthusiastic about this film ? Well, probably because the horror genre is so hopelessly taken with torture porn (see “Saw”) nowadays that it’s refreshing to be confronted with such a charmingly twisted and original entry in the genre. It’s a nostalgic look on how we used to be scared when listening to boogeyman stories. A return to basics. It’s about those sleeping-with-the-light-on-and-making-sure-the-closet-door-is-closed kind of frights that fill the darker side of our imagination. The film is not particularly scary (although, for some, I might not be a reliable source on this), but builds plenty of suspense and a constant atmosphere of dread. There is some gore, so squeamish types beware, but carnage is not the main focus here. It’s also very reliant on practical FX which I personally thought was a very nice touch, so no CGI here, thank god.

The story is pure Halloween love affair. As I understand, Michael Dougherty already made an animated Halloween short in 1996 called “Season’s Greetings”, so the man was just burning to get this one out. All four stories will be a familiar taste to fans of creepy TV show like “Tales from the Crypt”, but able writing and excellent visual handling help freshen up the standard material with style. Some might even identify a slight comic-bookish approach in the narrative. The one thing that I felt was missing was witty dialogue, but it’s not something you’ll necessarily miss. It’s a lot of fun to watch the stories unfold and tie-in into each other, making the chronology of events pretty jumbled but kept in order by familiar character run-ins so there’s no confusion. Also, the short length keeps the pacing running smoothly without any boring moments that might encourage a closer look at possible plot holes.

Overall “Trick ’r Treat” is definetly more treat than tricks. Everything is in place for a new Halloween classic, and there’s a good chance that not only fans of the genre will find it worth watching. So, Amelie, I’m saving money for you electricity bill, ‘cause you have to see this one.

Orphan (2009)


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9

Starring: Isabelle Fuhrmanm, Peter Sarsgaard, Vera Farmiga
Director: Jaumet Collet-Serra
Screenwriter: David Johnson
Rating : R for disturbing violent content, some sexuality and language.

As soon as you see the trailer for “Orphan”, it’s pretty easy to write it off as standard slasher fare thriller, but surprisingly this is one of the few times when you’d be wrong. Director Jaume Collet-Serra (“House of Wax” , the silly 2005 remake) and writer David Johnson manage to break out a different kind of evil kid thriller, based on some of the classic cliches, yet remarkably original.

The orphan in the title is Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a bright, mysterious 9-year-old russian girl, adopted by Kate (Vera Farmiga) and John Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard), a young couple still trying to deal with the tragedy of their stillborn daughter. Kate and John already have two other children, a boy, Daniel and a deaf-mute little girl, Max. It might seems strange that the two would feel the need to adopt another child (other than it being a reason to trigger the plot), but it could be argued that perhaps they needed to fill the void left after losing their baby, sort of undo the unfortunate event. However, as the film progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Esther is not all she seems to be and her inclusion in the family will prove to be a fatal mistake for the Colemans.

In all appearances, Esther is a poster child for good behaviour. She’s polite, well-mannered and has an overall “old-school” charm about her. All this is just for show unfortunately, as there is a far darker side of her that she hides with surprising ability. In fact, you could swear she’s just too mature for her age (and with good reason). In one scene, she displays advanced knowledge of sex and the usage of the F-word in that particular context, which is what tips Kate off that there may be more to Esther than meets the eye. Well, that and the fact that she broke a classmate’s leg by pushing her down a playground slide.

Something’s not quite right with Esther. On the other hand, something’s not quite right with the Colemans either. Kate struggles with alcohol addiction and John is trying to earn back Kate’s trust after having an affair some years in the past. The family is in a fragile state, with issues left in the backstages of their lives. But Esther seems more than keen to play with these issues, speculating their weakenesses, turning them against each other. She even turns their children on her side by means of aggressive intimidation. Now Kate slowly grasps Esther’s intentions, but who’s going to believe her ? She’s the one currently on therapy. Every time she tries to talk to her husband, he treats her like a mental case. By the time everyone realises what’s going on, it’s too late.

What makes “Orphan” so different from so many other thrillers ? First of all, its willingness to subject children to unspeakable on-screen perils. I mean, I don’t think I can name another film where grade school kids are treated this brutally. It’s unflinching in its display of preteen violence, which makes it all the more shocking. Then, there’s the great performance by Isabelle Fuhrman. According to IMDb.com she was 10 at the time (she turned 11 while filming), and it’s shocking to see her turn from sweet kid to cold-blooded manipulative homicidal girl. It’s not a simple task for a 10-year-old to play a psychotic killer convincingly, but she does it. Which is not to say her co-stars don’t do a great job. Vera Farmiga is wonderfull, turning a classic character type into a solid, convincing lead, powerfull enough to hold the film all by herself. Peter Saarsgard isn’t given much to do except act in defiance to his wife’s complaints, all the while being pleasant and mild mannered. He’s not a bad guy, it’s just that he seems too eager to trust Esther rather than his wife. He’s been the one with the guilty conscience up until now, so he probably feels it’s just the right time to shift the blame game on his wife. Lastly, I have to say I was surprised at the how well the script plays the psychological aspects of the broken family. It’s not terribly deep, but it just feels like it’s hitting all the right notes, despite having some of the good ol’ horror flick scare tactics.

There’s not a moment in the film where you can dismiss the plot as dumb, even when the twist towards the end turns the whole story on its head. It has that strength, to take hold of the audience and not let go until the credits start rolling. A solid cast and spine-tingling moments contribute fully to its strength, so don’t miss this one.

Longford (2006)


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9

Starring: Jim Broadbent, Samantha Morton, Andy Serkis
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan

Francis Aungier Pakenham, count of Longford, was certainly one of Great Britain’s controversial figures. Member of the labour party, president of the House of Lords, important figure in the government for some years, and a devout catholic, Lord Longford has made himself known to the public through his excentric character and numerous social projects, especially his work with prisoner rehabilitation and his attempts to ban pornography.

“Longford”, an original HBO production, follows the man’s activity (played by Jim Broadbent) since 1985, particularly his efforts to obtain a pardon for Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton), sentenced to life in prison for the murder of several children alongside her boyfriend, Ian Brady (Andy Serkis), also serving a life sentence in the same prison. Though permanently discouraged by his wife, Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan), his family, colegues and the press, Longford never gave up on Myra, his valiant efforts ultimately resulting in his exclusion from the House of Lords.

It can safely be said that Lord Longford was indeed an excentric person, but also a fascinating individual.  The friendship he offered Myra was something quite scandalous at the time, but it also brings up issues of forgiveness even when faced with unspeakable atrocities, his own system of beliefs being built around the idea that no person is beyond forgiveness. The endeavour of saving someone like Myra seems like madness, but for him, it is his duty, as is any good catholic’s duty, to do all in his power to save lost souls.

However, at some point, Myra betrais this friendship by officially admiting her direct involvement in the murders, thus destroying Longfords reputation, and bringing him face to face with a crysis of faith. Forced to withdraw from the public eye, he finds strength in his beliefs once more and continues to work with prisoners until his death in 2001 at the age of 95.

The film is just as good as many other HBO productions, with an impressive array of awards and nominations including Golden Globes, Emmies, and BAFTA TV. The acting is fantastic, Broadbent evokes not just the physical appearance and gesturing of the real Longford, but also the profound feelings, innocence and complexity of a man who does not believe in absolute evil. Samantha Morton plays Myra with a subtle, icy strength, a strange duality, split between apparent innocence, mistery and dignity, embracing her guilt and punishment while defying any kind of help. Andy Serkis, as Myra’s murderous boyfriend, delivers a commanding performance, sinister and menacing without overacting and in very short appearances. Overall, it’s a wonderfull cast that make the film worth seeing all by themselves. The interactions between the characters are the salt and pepper of the film, a duel of hearts and human spirit

A lengthier film might have been been a plus, because it feels as if there might have been material here for more that just 90 minutes, but I have to take into account that it is a TV production, so compactness is a virtue I guess. It might have made a handsome mini-series, but there’s still enough depth and complexity to make it a unique experience.

The Hours (2002)


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Starring: Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Ed Harris, Allison Janney, John C. Reilly, Eileen Atkins, Stephen Dillane
Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenwriter: David Hare

As I was reading Virginia Woolf’s “Miss Dalloway” I remembered about “The Hours”, the great movie about the life and mental illness of the troubled author, played by Nicole Kidman, but combined with glimpses of the lives of other two suicidal women: a housewife of the 1950’s (Laura – Julianne Moore) and a contemporary embodiment of Miss Dalloway herself (Clarissa – Meryl Streep). Three different times, three different people, tragic similarities.

The main element these women share, however, is the superlative acting. The prosthetic nose was a source of much hype when it was announced that Nicole Kidman, known for her pretty girl image (it was the beginning of the ’00, little did anybody know that in a matter of almost 5 years, “the pretty girls” will be represented by moron blondes barely out of their teens with one or more addiction problems and absolutely no discernable talent like Mischa Barton and Kidman will become acting royalty), would play Virginia Wolf in the adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel. Many thought she would not be up for the task. I, for example, did not consider her a cardboard actress, but I also would have never nominated her as a great one either. She seemed bland and lifeless, a condition that she and Gwyneth Paltrow turned into a career. But she is wonderful here, to my surprise, and she manages to speak volumes from underneath the plastic appendix. Julianne Moore plays the mother of one (Jack Rovello) and she is heartbreaking as she struggles with depression and unhappiness, all while trying to pull herself together. The scenes between her and her son are wonderfully acted and perfectly directed. Last but not least, Meryl Streep, a force in the drama department and everywhere else, is a modern New Yorker facing a horrible picture – the one of her former lover slowly dying of AIDS. She makes portraying strength and pain and sadness so effortless that she is automatically an inspiration for every young actress, but they do not imagine how much hard work and talent is required to be credible and part of the character while not overbearing or exaggerated (recently, Jessica Biel compared herself with Streep and Blanchett and she was quoted saying that the main difference between her and these two superlative actresses is her beauty that seems to get in the way of her getting great parts. Right.)

There is a slight feeling of surreal throughout the passing of “The Hours”. It seems that everything is happening in slow motion, that nobody is in a hurry, and because of the time changing and as the stories are progressing, the viewer is tightly wrapped into a web of various emotions, ranging from anger, depression, fear to peace, happiness and courage. It reminds us that even though the pain and solitude may seem too much to bear at times, it is our own incapacity to communicate and to change the aspects of our lives that hurt us that ultimately wears us down. And just like “Volver”, another personal favorite, it shows the sides of strong yet fragile women, women who can break the law – even kill – and be ahead of their times attracting unwanted attention and judgments, but cannot stand loneliness. Women that have the courage to move mountains for their loved ones but have no words for the pain inside them, leaving it to rot away until there is nothing left. Women that have so much to give but seem afraid of receiving, because they are not satisfied with “something”, they want “everything”.

It was clear from the literary preciousness of the script and the complex themes that this movie was aiming for the Oscars. It was also obvious that the “Bridget Jones” – ing of Nicole Kidman had the same purpose. But this does not change the high quality of this movie nor does it minimize it’s cast superb work. “The Hours” is one of the few recent fine movies.

Crimson Tide (1995)


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9

Starring : Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini

Director : Tony Scott

Screenplay : Michael Schiffer

Rating : R for strong language

There are too few good submarine movies. The old ones were in the sweet old Second World War heroic tradition, very clean and neat. Then, in the ’80s, Wolfgang Petersen brought us „Das Boot”. That’s enough to forgive him about „Troy”. „Das Boot” is a classic war film, brutal and realistic, both a tribute to the young sailors who fought in the war and an unique work of suspense. No submarine related film has ever come close to equaling Petersen’s epic. But in 1995, „Crimson Tide” came very, very close.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott team up once again after „Top Gun” and „Days of Thunder”, with much better results. The name of the submarine is the „Alabama” and it has nuclear capabilities. Its captain is Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his second in command is Hunter (Denzel Washington). In Russia, rebel forces led by the extremist leader Radchenko, have taken hold of the country’s nuclear arsenal and they only need to decrypt the launch codes to be able to use them agains the US and thus start a Third World War. The Alabama is sent in to prepare to launch nuclear missles before the russians do, but the war brewing at the surface will explode on the command deck of the US nuclear submarine. Ramsey and Hunter are complete opposites in terms of opinion. Ramsey is the hardened commander with 25 years of experiente both in war and peace, and believes in harsh discipline, as per example when a fire explodes in the kitchen, he immediately begins a drill, to keep the sailors on their toes he says, but Hunter disagrees, to which Ramsey harshly replies : „We’re here to preserve democracy, not practice it.” Hunter is a young commander, with no actual combat experience. He’s smart and cares about his men, he knows how to be strict and popular at the same time, and does not share Ramsey’s gung-ho attitude. His opinion about the nuclear war can be summed up by the following line : „In the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.” After a russian submarine attacks them and cripples their radio capabilities, they receive an incomplete message which could mean that either they should launch their nuclear weapons, or abort their mission. Ramsey thinks they should strike while Hunter thinks they should wait for the radio to be repaired so they can receive the full orders. Since the situation between the two has grown tense, a simple exchange of arguments turns into all-out war, splitting the submarine into two sides fighting each other for control of the nuclear weapon, with the fate of humanity at stake.

„Crimson Tide” is probably Tony Scott’s finest film, one of the rare cases where his style doesn’t get in the way of the film, nor does it try to elevate the material. It’s just there to support it. The hyperactive editing, richly detailed frames, aggresive soundtrack, they are all there, but they are the most important element of the film. What matters now are the surprising script and the heavy suspense. Yes, it does contain the usual sub cliches, like for example when the captain is forced to seal a compartment with men still inside or when they are sinking helplessly to a critical depth, only to fix the engines at the last moment and rise to safety. But, except for those, the film doesn’t betray expectations, delivering a tense struggle between two sub commanders who are both right, and both wrong. Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman are extraordinary actors who can both add layers of quite detail to their characters, and explode with searing energy at the right moments, and the script does offer them some very nice scenes together. For example : a surreal dialogue about horse breeds during the very tense finale. Quentin Tarantino is said to have been called in to rewrite the dialogue so it would be more dynamic. And indeed, that previous scene example sounds just like something Tarantino would do ( there are also a lot of references to comic books and Star Trek ). The supporting characters are pretty well written into the story also by means of dialogue, avoiding to become stereotypes. The atmosphere of the submarine is also very immersive in the „Das Boot” tradition, with the cameras rushing through the tight corridors, the lighting creating a dark electronically lit environment, and the cinematography and sets creating the claustrophobic feeling that adds to the suspense. Extrme close-ups of sweaty faces lit up by the red or green coloured screens, crew members shouting through the radio, contrary to navy discipline, and the adrenaling pumping score by Hans Zimmer, add to the crazyness in typical Scott/Bruckheimer fashion, a trend that seems to carry on even to this day.

The film’s biggest asset is the fact that it’s more than an action film. It brings an interesting perspective to nuclear wars and the ridiculously huge responsibilities of a submarine commander and what can happen when the chain of command breaks down in a critical moment. In fact, since 1996, the executive decision of releasing a nuclear weapon is reserved strictly for the president of the United States of America. They must have seen this movie too.