ReelThoughts: September 15, 2009

"TIFF #6: Surreality"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Film festivals have a reputation as being places where dramas and documentaries dominate. While there's some truth to this, there are plenty of opportunities for those who prefer films outside the realm of traditional festival fare. The Midnight Madness program, for example, is chock full of horror and exploitation titles, and there are plenty of comedies, adventures, and family films sprinkled throughout the other programs. There are even choices for fans of the science fiction/fantasy genre, three high profile titles of which I will discuss in this update.

The Road is undoubtedly one of the fall's most anticipated offerings, in part because it has been lingering on the horizon of the cinematic landscape for a year. Originally scheduled for a release in late 2008, it was delayed when the filmmaker determined that his preferred cut could not be made available in time. A tentative March 2009 opening was scratched when The Weinstein Company decided that the film had Oscar potential. So now, 12 months after its expected availability, John Hillcoat's interpretation of Cormac McCarthy's brutal post-apocalyptic novel is ready for theatrical viewing.

This is not a good date movie (unless you have an understanding and open-minded date) and it's not a feel-good opportunity. As those who have read McCarthy's source material are aware, this is a tough, tough story. It's about loss, death, isolation, and the fine line that divides good from evil, man from animal. Yes, The Road ends on what can best be described as a hopeful note, but that doesn't wipe away the nearly two hours of emotional punishment that precede it. Those willing to travel The Road need to know what to expect going in, and have to be willing to accept the film for what it is. It's powerful, but it's not fun.

Before the movie opens, an unspecified cataclysm has impacted the world. Its specifics are never revealed, but they are not germane to the story. The Road follows two survivors: Father (Viggo Mortensen) and Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they go about the day-to-day business of surviving some number of years after The Fall. The Mother (Charlize Theron), who didn't give birth until after the cataclysm, is no longer around. As we see in flashbacks, increasing waves of despair led her to wander alone into the cold and dark and die. Father and Son traverse lonely roads with only the vaguest of goals in mind: reach the coast then head south, where there might be people. There are dangers aplenty, including amoral, cannibalistic gangs; disease; and, most pressing, starvation. Water is plentiful but food is not.

Actors Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee have difficult, physically demanding tasks. Mortensen, with an unkempt beard that makes him look like a mountain man, embodies someone who has decided to live instead of give up, and whose every ounce of effort is devoted to protecting his son. Smit-McPhee shows maturity and impressive range for one so young. The supporting cast, although small and with roles little more substantive than cameos, is high-profile: Theron, Rubert Duvall, and Guy Pearce.

The Road is reminiscent of the '80s post apocalyptic drama Testament, which also dealt with the concept of survival in a dying world. The Road is a little more bleak, in part because the filming locations convey genuine devastation (some scenes were shot in and around post-Katrina New Orleans) and in part because of the isolation of the main characters. The Father and Son are alone in the world. They must face the reality that there could be instances in which death would be preferable to the continuation of life. (The Father keeps a loaded gun with two bullets - one for him and one for the boy.) The film depicts how dire circumstances can bring out the best and the worst in human beings - far more often the latter than the former.

The Road asks basic questions about what it means to be human, and whether the need to survive is a basic drive. Perhaps the central question is a simple one: Would you want to continue living if there was no hope of happiness and if everything was a struggle? When asked if he ever thought about giving up and dying, the vagabond played by Robert Duvall has a simple answer: "No. In these times, we can't afford such luxuries."

The look of the film is evocative, with frequent shots of broken cities, blasted forests, and wide expanses of dead country. The only sun is in brief, beautiful flashbacks that end with sudden jolts back to reality. The sky is a constant slate gray and it seems to be raining as often as it is merely cloudy. Color is desaturated; The Road might just as easily have been filmed in black-and-white. There are those who will condemn this picture as being two grueling, torturous hours. In some ways, it's hard to disagree with this - it is difficult and at times unpleasant. But it's also powerful and provides unsparing insight into human nature. There's an unfortunate tendency to turn post-apocalyptic stories into rousing action/adventure epics. By taking a more realistic approach, The Road suggests that dying in a global catastrophe may be by far the best alternative to surviving beyond it.

Oliver Parker has made a career out of adapting Oscar Wilde, with versions of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest already on video store shelves. For his latest, Parker has turned his attention to what may be Wilde's most famous novel: The Picture of Dorian Gray. His interpretation, for which he uses a screenplay by Toby Finlay, is simply called Dorian Gray, and it brings a modern sense of the lurid to a classic story. While Wilde's wit remains firmly entrenched, there's also a gruesome vein of gothic horror, and elements of the original which existed in the subtext or were merely hinted at are brought graphically into the open.

Dorian Gray casts Ben Barnes as the pretty boy Dorian and Colin Firth as his mentor in matters of self-gratification. Barnes, who achieved international recognition as the title character in Prince Caspian is fine as Dorian, although there are instances in which his range is strained. Firth, on the other hand, is nothing short of brilliant as Lord Henry Wotton. He chews on some of Wilde's best lines ("Conscience is just a polite term for cowardice", "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it") with the kind of relish that only a seasoned thespian can do.

The movie begins with Dorian - a handsome, kind, innocent young man - arriving in London on a day in the late 19th century to take over his grandfather's estate, which he inherited when the old man died. Dorian is quickly befriended by Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin), who desires to paint his picture, and Lord Henry, who teaches life-lessons in pleasure. Dorian's growing vanity leads him to proclaim that he would trade his soul for the opportunity to remain young and virile - a deal that the Devil is all too happy to make. Soon, the portrait of Dorian painted by Basil becomes the repository for all of the moral and physical ills afflicting the man. Dorian attempts to remain "good" and proposes marriage to his actress girlfriend, Sibyl Vane (Rachel Hurd-Wood) but, after her death, there is no reining in his excesses.

As Dorian Gray adaptations go, this is not the most faithful, but it is among the most entertaining. With plenty of scares, gore, sex, and nudity, this comes as close to the exploitation genre as it does to a classical literature adaptation. Is there such at thing as a literate exploitation movie? Firth's performance elevates the film and Parker shows that not only does he have a deft hand when it comes to handling Wilde's dialogue, but he is adept at developing a creepy atmosphere. The re-creations of late 19th and early 20th century London are impeccable. Dorian Gray is not as blissfully enjoyable as Parker's An Ideal Husband, but it's at least as good as (and perhaps a little better than) his The Importance of Being Earnest and represents another feather in his Wilde cap.

Heath Ledger's untimely death rocked the film industry but it must have made Terry Gilliam feel that a higher power had it in for him. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus became the second major Gilliam film to be derailed by events beyond his control (following his initial failed attempt to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a project to which he has recently decided to return). Ledger died with his part half-filmed, leaving Gilliam with a huge question about whether things could go forward. However, following some re-writes and with the help of a few friends (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), he was able to complete the movie. No one can say how close the finished version of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is to Gilliam's initial vision, but it at least represents a worthy farewell to Ledger. Despite significant narrative and pacing problems, the film is visually and thematically interesting, and features many Gilliam touches.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is millennia old, having once made a deal with the devil (he and Dorian would get along well). Now, working with a small troupe that includes his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), the faithful Anton (Andrew Garfield), and the diminutive Percy (Verne Troyer), the Doctor stages a nightly magic act that transports people through a mirror and into other realities. The group is joined by the mysterious Tony (Heath Ledger) when they find him hanging from a noose under a bridge. He immediately sets to work updating the show to make it more relevant and profitable. This irritates Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a.k.a. the Devil, who believes Tony is giving Paranassus an unfair advantage in their ongoing game of wits.

The way in which Gilliam got around Ledger's death was to use all of the material he had filmed with the actor (resulting in some scenes that might have been better left on the cutting room floor appearing in the final cut), and have Tony change his face (first to Depp, then to Law, then to Farrell) every time he passes through the mirror to another world. The makeup jobs are excellent - so good, in fact, that it's difficult to identify Depp as the character until the first close-up. Law likewise requires double-takes. Farrell is a little more obvious. It's a credit to Gilliam's mastery as a filmmaker that if you didn't know his lead actor had died 1/3 of the way through filming, you'd never figure it out purely from what's on screen.

The movie suffers from uneven pacing, with the first half dragging before things pick up for the imaginative second portion. The narrative is also somewhat thin, functioning for the most part as a clothesline upon which Gilliam can hang a number of impressive-looking and offbeat sequences. Indeed, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus often seems like a trip down Memory Lane for Gilliam, with direct references to The Adventures of Baron Muchausen, The Fisher King, Time Bandits, The Brothers Grimm, and (of course) Monty Python's Flying Circus (men dressing as women and dancing police officers wearing stockings). From a visual standpoint, this is vintage Gilliam. Sadly, perhaps in part because of circumstances beyond his control, the director has neither the story nor the steady pace necessary to declare this an unqualified winner.

The trailers for The Road, Dorian Gray, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus:




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