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Monthly Archives: January 2010

Breaker Morant (1980): A dark companion film to Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory”.  Similar to “Paths”, three soldiers, Australians serving the British Empire during the Boer War, are put on trial for war crimes.  Where as Kubrick’s soldiers were guys randomly picked to stand in a bogus trial for cowardice and be executed, the soldiers here are actually guilty of a crime.  Most movies of this sort are essentially underdog stories out to expose injustice.  The soldiers in “Morant” actually did the things they are accused of, but felt justified in that their acts were during war.  You feel some sympathy for these guys but they’re basically guilty for what they did.  The movie makes no effort to tell us anything about the Boer’s of South Africa either.  They’re little more than farmers in dingy clothes.  Well made movie with good performances but its politics seem limited in scope and more than a little backwards.

Logan’s Run (1976):  If 60’s and 70’s sci-fi flicks can be the most clueless, blissed out type of movie then “Logan’s Run” represents an apex of the genre.  Perhaps second only to “Zardoz” or “Barbarella” in the tripped out and silly looking department, “Logan’s Run” presents a future where the last remnants of humanity live blissfully in a big dome where they indulge in human pleasure at every moment but only live to be 30.  When they die at 30 they put on skintight bodysuits covered in flames, wear hockey mask and float around in a big arena where they explode.  Fashion of the future consists of see through table cloths that come in yellow, red or green.  Everyone travels in tubes.  It all seems quite insane at first but as it chugs along it starts to feel like, and eventually become, a retread of most utopian nightmare scenarios.  It’s that same future/parable where everyone is wonderfully ignorant and happy while our protagonist learns that the life everyone is chasing is a lie and must expose the truth.  Though it won an Oscar for special effects most of the miniatures look like things you could buy at Hobby Lobby.

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Ten Word or Less Review: The Apocalypse is a bummer.  Not an action movie.

For Hollywood the end of the world is an action setting playground.  After the world comes to an end it transforms into a wasteland populated with wondering badasses who protect the meek  by fending off the robber barrens and zombies of the land.  Both sides usually wear lots of leather, stylized rags or the occasional hockey mask.  In essence, the world becomes a dead tech, western, fantasyland.  Rarely has a movie attempted the apocalyptic vision of “The Road”, John Hillcoat’s faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pultizer Prize winning novel.  In this story, the end of the world is exactly that, the end.

The Apocalypse of “The Road” is an unglorified and grizzly one in which existence isn’t nearly impossible, but horrible.  There are no cool, homemade automobiles or boats to joyride around in.  The robber barrens are still here, but they don’t want your gas, and they don’t wear fetishistic leather get ups, they only want to eat you, and not because they are zombies.  There are times when what’s left of world seems to threaten to crack open and swallow up its last remaining souls in one last act of disgust towards humanity.  People have always had a morbid curiosity to see the world come to an end and Hollywood has always been happy to oblige.  “The Road” is a movie to hopefully stave off that misguided interest.  When the world ends, it’s not a special effects spectacular, but a sad and miserable place where good people go bad and other good people go worse.  It is in this horrid landscape we follow a boy and his father as they struggle forward each day trying to eek out life, and not be a meal for someone else.

Viggo Mortensen is the father to the lone boy, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee.  The two of them walk along the road of the title, itself a highway that he hopes will take them far enough south and to the ocean where something like life still might exists.  Each day consist of two things, him doing his best to save himself and his son from starvation and to keep the two of them from being eaten by roving bands of cannibals.  In this apocalypse there literally is nothing left of the world.  Food stores are gone, plant life is dead, animals are not to be seen.  At night the remains of civilization burn away.  No real explanation is given as to how all this came to be and an explanation isn’t necessary.  When the end comes that’s all there is.  The how’s and why’s no longer matter because there’s no one left to contemplate them or undo the destruction.  It’s this grim march through a world’s death that makes the overall success of “The Road” somewhat shocking.  With lapsing into one note morbidity very possible at all turns, “The Road” manages to keep the viewer engaged, in large part because of Mortensen and his relationship with Smit-McPhee.  Their interaction is touching, believable and rooted in the belief that humanity is a good thing worth cherishing.

Mortensen sees his son as possibly the last vessel of human dignity.  He instills in him a strong since of right and wrong, even at a time when to do so seems a waste of effort.  We’re watching what feels like what could be the last attempt at human decency to ever transpire when Mortensen keeps his son safe from the surrounding savagery.  Decency, as banal as the word may sound, is largely the point of the story.  Without decency, we collapse into barbarism, as happens here.  When that happens, our humanity is lost and thus we are lost.  “The Road”, for all its unending grimness, is ultimately a redemptive story, though one many may not enjoy taking.  False uplift and hooky emotionalism are as absent as the wiped away civilization.

This is another stellar part for Mortensen who has crafted together a fine string of roles in some gutsy pieces of cinema.  He’s escaped the booby trap of sci-fi fantasy worship which kills or stalls careers as fast as it makes them.  The film hinges on his performance and he doesn’t disappoint.  The lack of overall kudos for his work here is surprising.  Newcomer Smit-McPhee is strong as well, but his part requires a little less than other more daring childhood performances.  The only major change to McCarthy’s novel comes in the form of a small role for Charlize Theron.  The movie grafts on flashback/dream sequences which introduce her as the mother/wife who chooses certain doom over a life of uncertainty at world’s end.  Robert Duvall has a solid, minor part and is nearly unrecognizable.

Despite its overall success “The Road” has clearly been edited within inches of its life.  Delayed for more than a year and tinkered with endlessly in the editing room, “Road” feels like a happy medium everyone agreed to live with.  Several sequences feel abrupt and one or two others feel a little pointless.  The brisk pace that the movie keeps probably works to its advantage, as lingering too long in one place in this world of dead could probably stop the movie cold.

With its endless views of gray desolation “The Road” will be a hard journey, if not impossible one, for many viewers.  Though the swift footed nature it maintains could make it bearable for those less tolerant of downer cinema, it is still downer cinema, though of the highest order.  Never the less, appreciators of sad, morose, heartbreaking stories will be taken by “The Road’s” bleak but moving point of view.

Ten Words or Less Review: Mortifying documentary about dolphin slaughter in Japan.

“The Cove” is a movie to watch with friends, for in the watching of this movie, you will come to see if they have a soul or not.  “The Cove” is an accusing look at the dolphin killing fishermen of Taiji, Japan.  In Taiji, the town’s fishermen spend 6 months of the year catching and killing roughly 23,000 dolphins.  They do this EVERY YEAR.  These ‘people’, I use the term loosely, brutally round up herds of dolphins every morning into the cove the title forebodingly refers to.  Here, some dolphins are captured and sold to aquariums around the world for huge prices.  Those dolphins not selected for a life of unenviable captivity are then rounded into a side cove difficult to see from land, and then brutally slaughtered.  “The Cove” may culminate in one of the most horrific sequences of animal slaughter ever put to film for mass viewing.  The fishermen stab, impale and butcher these creatures, turning the sea red, proving that Hell can exist just fine on Earth, no need to take that express elevator down.  This is the part where watching with your friend(s) becomes important.   Only a sick personality of Colonial Kurtz-like insanity could watch this and react with passive indifference.  Should you watch this with friends or loved ones and they view this slaughter indifferently, shrugging it off with no reaction, stop being their friend immediately.  The person you’re sharing space with has nothing but ice in their veins and a ‘For Rent’ sign where their heart beats.  Walk away slowly, take their number out of your phone, unfriend them on facebook.  In short, get the Hell away from them fast.  So, with that said, back to the movie.

This slaughter was captured by a team of activists who had to plan and calculate with clandestine military precision.  The cove is guarded fiercely by the local fishermen and authorities immediately arrest and deport anyone who attempts to watch or reveal the horror show.  Using Hollywood trickery, cameras in rocks, and old fashioned sneakiness, this team of admirable do-gooders have finally shown the world an atrocity that few knew anything about.

Making the film so painful on a different level entirely is recounting the life of activist Richard O’Berry.  O’Berry was a dolphin trainer who inadvertently helped usher in the age of cetacean captivity.  How?  He was the dolphin trainer on the TV show “Flipper.”  Before that show, the idea of keeping and bonding with adorable sea creatures, and charging people to do it, hadn’t had its day.  Thanks to the show’s success, it ran for three seasons, the idea of capturing and showcasing aquatic mammals came to the forefront and our sea bound friends have been paying the price ever sense.  O’Berry feels a crushing sense of responsibility for starting this repellent trend and has repeatedly risked life, limb and jail time to free captured dolphins.

Making things even more frustrating are the recounts of questionable and destructive beauracratic BS which has lead to the continued slaughter of dolphins in Taiji.  Of course, the age old response to the horrific slaughter of any creature is, “Well, people gotta eat.”  And I buy that logic hook and line.  Meat is tasty, fish is yummy.  But the fallacy here is two fold.  First, and very important, dolphins have long been regarded in the scientific community as intelligent creatures with a definite sense of higher being.  They empathize, they emote, they’ve repeatedly demonstrated altruistic tendencies towards people.  Butchering them seems to not qualify as murder simply because they’re dolphins.  Secondly, dolphin meat is nearly poisonous in this day in age.  There is so much mercury in it that it can poison human beings over time and lead to birth defects in their newborns.  So why the Hell do these fishermen keep butchering these creatures?  It’s a question that “The Cove” grapples with, speculates at but finds little tangible answer to, only stonewalled belligerence insisting that the slaughter of these creatures continue.

Not many people will like “The Cove” in any traditional sense.  But it’s an exceedingly moving picture that people should make some small effort to see.  It’s a testament to the undervalued power and importance of documentary filmmaking.  Documentaries have been responsible for changing the lives of people, I’m sure this one can, and hopefully has, helped save a dolphin or two from the end of a harpoon.

Ten Word or Less Review: Rock’em sock’em Sherlock.  Smart detective gets dumb movie.

I’m not a Conan Doyle purist or militant about how the Holmes character is portrayed over time.  If Robert Downey Jr. wants to be a contrarian and turn the character on its head in some ways, more power to him.  The atypical Holmes of movies past has always been that of a refined gentleman scholar.  Well dressed, cleaned shaven, even tempered, funny hat, big pipe, all extensions of his unerring, perceptive intellect.  It’s a character ripe for stiff British thespians to revel in portraying similarly, over and over and over as they have for decades.  Downey’s Holmes is a refreshingly selfish slob.  A poorly kept, never shaved, mess of a human who needs his dear Watson to keep his days straight and bail him out when he needs bailing.  I have no issue with any of this.  I love seeing traditional icons reinvented and turned into something they’ve never been before.  Let the purist rankle and rave all they want.  Screw’m if they can’t take broaden their horizons just the tiniest bit.  I applaud Downey for playing Holmes as this frazzled, quirked up, jerk.  Director Guy Ritchie though deserves to be hit on the head with any blunt object of choice  for the movie overall.  Considering the way Ritchie directs things he’d probably like it.

This Ritchie steered “Sherlock Holmes” is a bludgeoning of action movie bullshit.  A lumbering, destructive fist plowing through as many heads as it can get its hands on.  The intellect of the Holmes character may still be intact, but the wits of those guiding this bore are entirely in question.  Ritchie was one step away from a directorial purgatory from which he was to never escape.  Why he was given reprieve to helm this big-budget stinker can only be because those higher in command wanted someone with no aspirations for the material or ability to achieve them if they did.  He’s someone to make it digestibly dull to those who might wrinkle their nose in apprehension at the idea of an intellect driven hero who thinks more than he hits.  Ritchie and his dim script are poisons on the movie that keep killing it over and over with course action scenes and silly slo-mo.  I can buy Holmes boxing, but plopping him in the middle of what feels like a fight club is genuinely stupid.  Ramping up the action isn’t a crime, but putting Holmes and Watson in one show stopping explosion after another is tedious.  Chasing the bad guy around for a finale isn’t necessarily creatively corrupt.  Making sure the chase senselessly ends on a high bridge tells me you’re just doing it to make people fall off the way they always fall off.   It’s all doubly sad because the cast is able and game.

Downey is clearly here to have well paid fun in between “Iron Man” movies.  The role is no stretch for him in any way, but he’s not bored or phoning it in.  He’s trying to have as much fun as he can in a role that only requires his tried and true snark.  Jude Law makes a very capable Watson who can stand toe to toe with the illustrious Holmes.  The part is a winner for Law who’s become a bit of movie poison himself over the years.  Less impressive is lovely Rachel McAdams, sadly wasted on what is little more than an action movie babe part.  Mark Strong is the routine baddie of the film, a dime a dozen nothing saddled with the same world conquering aspirations as so many other movie baddies.  Holmes lovers looking for the dreaded Moriarity only get the character in shadow, as a promise of sequels loom heavily over everything.

There’s likely more of this Holmes to come and if they want to take this thing anywhere worth going, they should eject Ritchie immediately.  With him behind the camera there’s little to no chance anything worth pursuing further will come out of this incarnation of Holmes.  I’m perfectly fine with a different kind of Sherlock Holmes.  But big, loud and dumb is not my first choice.

Ten Word or Less Review: Don’t forget to bring your lucky crack pipe!

Nicholas Cage is a master two things, buggy eccentricity and rote boredom.  It’s how he does the job these days.  I’m not really sure he’s an actor anymore so much as just a walking performance piece in some films and a guy cashing fat Disney checks in others.  How he feels about his craft and the state of his career may not be knowable without tying the man down to a chair and forcing it out of him.  Can you torture a man who once willingly ate a cockroach for a nothing movie?  Anyway, we can be sure of one thing, he likely reveled in the warped notes his character hits over the course of “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.”

A soul mate of sorts to the original 1993 “Bad Lieutenant” by Abel Ferrara, “New Orleans” follows Cage’s drug abusing Lieutenant as he scores dope, snorts blow, minds his hooker/girlfriend Eva Mendes, bets money he doesn’t have on football games he won’t win, arranges thefts from the evidence locker and so on and so forth.  Where as the original “Lieutenant” was a minimal, bleak, one note performance piece for star Harvey Keitel, “New Orleans” makes efforts to be a more complete package with an actual plot, characters and less pretentious purpose.  Cage’s Lieutenant isn’t just thrust at the viewer as a blow snorting cop with no conscience.  He’s an asshole of a cop to be sure, but one who’s been injured on the job, whose pain management techniques have escalated from prescribed Vicodin use to any narcotic he can score under any circumstance.  As all his vices begin to spiral out of control, he lands a quadruple homicide of Africans in the ghetto and is assigned to bring down the drug trafficker that killed them.  As his investigation evolves he becomes increasingly amoral about getting the job done, smoking crack at opportune times, endangering witnesses, cutting off an old lady’s oxygen as he threatens to blow her head off with his wildly over sized, Callahan-esque .45.

Cage is the showpiece here.  Not many can do nut job, schizoid quirks like he can and sell it as well.  His character gradually clinches up into a ball of nerves that might do anything to anyone.  The film itself though plays things safe to some extent.  Cage’s Lieutenant never goes after anyone or does something to someone where some sense of justice or justification isn’t in his actions.  Even when he cuts off the old lady’s oxygen we’re still in his corner.  This ‘wild/play it safe’ attitude keeps things from ever feeling serious or truly dangerous.  “New Orleans” is at its core a straight cop drama played for twisted laughs and injected with moments of surrealism, moments typically involving reptiles.

Directed by Werner Herzog, the legendary German still feels a little non-descript dealing with non-documentary material.  He keeps things moving along and lets Cage do his thing, but his presence behind the camera doesn’t add much.  The style of the film doesn’t draw attention to itself, except when lizards are in the scene.  He seems to have deemphasized a lot of characters and overall arch so as to not get in the way of Cage and his three ring circus of insanity.  Perhaps to do more on his part would’ve overwhelmed everything and caused a meltdown.

As Cage cuts each scene with his knife and fork and chews it down, a pretty decent supporting cast fails to poke through with much of note.  Val Kilmer is sadly cast as an underused straight man to Cage’s loopy, drug vacuum.  It should be a felony to cast Kilmer in such an under used, do nothing role.  Surprising though is Eva Mendes.  A model so gorgeous her presence in movies was a forgone conclusion, she’s to date been a walking forgettable from one movie to another.  Here she manages some chemistry with Cage.  How they brought it to the surface is anyone’s guess.  I would venture they spent the time in between takes watching their scenes in “Ghost Rider” and then did the exact opposite.

As it finishes, “New Orleans” wisely avoids being a carbon copy of the original “Lieutenant.”  That picture’s bleak and cynical ending would feel at odds with this grim but comical tale.  Cage’s character may be detestable, but there has to be more than a simple, morally justified death at story’s end.  To force such an ending as the original would be asking the viewer to inject a deeper meaning here than is really needed.   Herzog and his fellow writers find a nice, non-annoying note of cohesive ambiguity to end things.  Fans of bugnut, loco cinema will get a perverse, albeit minor, thrill watching this incarnation of “Bad Lieutenant.”  As offbeat and weird as it advertised itself as being, it didn’t reach the stratosphere of quirk classics it was aiming for.  But in a shallow cineplex full of mega-budget do-gooders, it’s a fun nugget of pseudo-perversity.

 

Sherlock Holmes has come crashing back into all our lives.  Though absent from American cinema for 25 years, there was a time when the iconic detective made frequent appearances in movie houses.  1979’s “Murder by Decree” features Christopher Plummer as the infallible detective with James Mason as the ever trusty Watson.  The two make an almost great dynamic duo, their give and take as these two icons of British literature hold the film up higher than it deserves.  It’s a shame the two weren’t paired up again for a more thrilling or innovative mystery.  “Murder by Decree” invents a new mystery for Holmes to solve that author Doyle never dreamt up, the pursuit and capture of equally iconic serial killer Jack the Ripper.  Directed by Bob Clark (A Christmas Story), “Decree” simply takes the pair of Holmes and Watson and injects them into one of the more well-known Ripper theories.  If you’ve seen the Hughes Brothers underwhelming “From Hell” then you’ll have little trouble determining where things are going.  “Decree” coasts by easily on the charm of Plummer and Mason.  These two old pros have little choice but to be classy in their prospective parts.  For fans of Holmes it’s a curiosity that will probably be worth watching.  If you enjoy old pros like Plummer and Mason then it’s a nice curiosity in their long and well-regarded careers. 

Curiosity: Jake the Ripper was the villain of two manhunts in 1979 theaters.  In “Decree” by Holmes, and also by Malcolm McDowell’s time traveling H.G. Wells in “Time After Time.” 

From now on unless a film truly warrents some pouring over, reviews will be short and sweet.  I don’t want to spend time writing about something marginal, menial, average, run of the mill, unimpressive, tedious, humdrum, undistinguished, fair to middling, standard, by the numbers, unexceptional, commonplace, dime a dozen or just plain dull.  If it was a bore to sit through, writing prolonged passages about the boredom it caused just extends the experience.

Ten Word or Less Review – Eh.  Only needed one word.

“The Ninth Gate” is a mildly paced, occult thriller by acclaimed and controversial director Roman Polanski.  Whatever you think of Polanski’s purported classics, either works of brilliance or overrated bores, there’s no mistaking “Ninth Gate” as little more than a minor effort.  Whatever drew the director to the material is an enigma, while his presence behind the camera likely accounts for the casting of Johnny Depp.  Depp is in rote form here.  His character’s only amusing attribute being his ability to chain smoke around priceless books.  This is a case of two heavyweight names coming together for a largely forgettable experience.  It’s worst parts lapse into silly but fleeting sequences of amateruishness.  The rest is just mechanical thriller routines which lead to familiar places and sequences.  The last scene is notably weird.

Ten Word or Less Review: Beautiful, silken hair tangled around a greasy mess.

Where to start with “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”?  We could rehash the troubled career of Terry Gilliam which movie writers love to drone on about.  But that would be redundant.  We could talk about the untimely and tragic death of Heath Ledger which nearly derailed another of the unlucky director’s peculiar films.  But that would make you cry.  We could talk about how Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law who lend generous supporting roles which ‘finish’ Ledger’s performance.  That would seem gossipy.  We could talk about the seemingly brilliant casting of Tom Waits as Satan.  That turns out to not be as much fun as you think.  We could talk about any of these items but in a way all of that seems to be a bit of a dodge.  We should talk about the movie itself.  A strange, uneven, nutzoid, grab bag of cinema that in turn enthralls, bores, entrances and alienates to varying degrees.

Iconic British thespian Christopher Plummer is the Dr Parnassus of the title.  Dr. Parnassus has the ability to transport people to the place in their mind where their desires are met and their potential to be wonderful human beings can be achieved, all through the use of a magical doorway.  The good doctor is thousands of years old because of a wager he’s made with Satan (Tom Waits).  In exchange for immortality, and the ability to go on making people see their inner light, once Dr. Parnassus has a child, said child must be turned over to the dark lord on its 16th birthday.  Dr. Parnassus’s now mature daughter, Lily Cole, is fast approaching her much dreaded 16th birthday.  As the Doctor’s traveling, ramshackle Imaginarium, imagine a folding theater stage on wheels, makes its way across London, the troupe, including a magician (Andrew Garfield) and a dwarf (Verne Troyer), find an almost dead man hanging from a bridge by a noose.  They rescue the nearly dead stranger (Ledger) and the Doctor begins to think that the charming amnesiac may hold the key to saving his daughter.  It sounds weird to be sure, but straight forward enough in its own way.  A good set up for what could be a wild fantasy yarn of considerable strength.  And placed squarely in the hands of Terry Gilliam, he brings parts of the story to life in a way few others could ever realize.  And he also botches, drags out and nearly ruins so many other parts of it.

A few too many sequences of “Imaginarium” feel tone def and plodding.  Whenever Gilliam brings his film out of the fantasy land of Dr. Parnassus’s mind and into the world that is London of today, everything tends to drag like an old bag full of rocks.  Not by comparison to the mental, psycho trips Gilliam composes when someone goes through the doorway, but simply because he can’t make much of this simplistic narrative work effectively.  At its core this is a race against time story, but a sense of urgency is never delivered.  Gilliam can find very little rhythm or chemistry between his talented actors.  He seems to have been more worried about all the clutter and junk decorating the set than troubled by the flatfooted emotions happening between his characters.  He doesn’t craft much of an arc for anyone to follow through with, especially Ledger.

Much has been made of the fact that Ledger’s performance is incomplete, finished by Farrell, Depp and Law.  Despite this hindrance, Gilliam was able to construct a convincing gimmick to explain the new faces that make up Ledger’s absence.  The face changes don’t take much away as it seems like the character would’ve turned out the same regardless.  The bigger issue is that there’s little to no emotional connection with anyone here.  Ledger, and his doppelgangers, bandy about as best they can, but Ledger himself is tied down with a lot of the sluggish story that Gilliam can’t work through efficiently.  It seems the meat of his part was yet to be carried out, and by turns Farrell, Depp and Law get the shinier moments of the role.  All three do admirable work in unenviable circumstances.  Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus spends too much time spaced out or drunk.  We know he loves his daughter but he’s not a very engrossing central character.  The casting of Tom Waits as Satan seemed like inspired genius when first considered, but little comes of it.  Wait’s isn’t awful or out of place, but his low voiced grumble all feels a bit too low key and one note.  In essence, he isn’t trying.  His part as Satan does get a nice twist.  His is a Satan not always interested in winning the game, but more keen to keep playing, thus torturing you.

Reading all of this makes it sound as if “Parnassus” is some kind of monumental washout.  A chore to be endured.  It’s not.  Despite these glaring issues of story and character, Gilliam still manages to craft a film with incredible sequences that explode with ingenuity.  When the film leaves behind the lead-footed narrative obligations of the real world, “Imaginarium” takes flight like few films do.  Gilliam, even at his worst, has always been able to spread the visions of his cranium across the screen with some degree of entrancement.  When he opens up his skull and pours out the Daliesque visions of a woman’s coveted giant new shoes, stilts which reach the clouds, Satan and his prey dancing through the shards of broken mirrors, and scores of other acid induced imagery, he’s truly in his element.  These sequences make “Parnassus” a worthy venture, all the drudgery of the rest of the film floating away without effort.

I’m not sure what this unfortunate duality of the movie says about the teller of the story himself.  Gilliam has made fascinating movies, and this is as close to the spirit of one of his coveted classics that he’s made in ages.  But at the same time he’s either rusty with the parts of film that require real directorial skill to make things work as a whole, or he’s simply bored by them and he chose to dash through them as fast as he can.  The man who made “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys” seems unlikely to return at this point.  No matter the answer, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” is a 50/50 experience of tripped out bliss married to a hobbled story arch full of unfulfilling character.  It’s worth seeing, warts and all, if only to revel in its fleeting moments of greatness.

Ten Word or Less Review: Mild mannered, ambiguous, relevant tale.  Little overrated but good.

Spoiler Note: I will discuss at some length the ending of this film.  Don’t read the last paragraphs if you plan to see.

We value out homes, our families and the possessions that surround us no matter how cheesy or run of the mill they may be.  We are comforted by our routines and the places we know and find familiar.  The vast majority of us lead lives not dissimilar from one another despite what we may think.  Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air” is about the person who does not wish to lead this life at all.  It is about a man who rejects all that is typical with most of us and regrets nothing about the decision.  “Up in the Air” has been greeted with massive critical praise and more than a suggestion it could win the Best Picture Oscar.  And while it is a solid and interesting film on several levels, such kudos reflects more about the thin year passed than the movie itself.  It’s a movie which in some ways embraces convention, but finds ways to tweak the message just enough to warrant discussion.

George Clooney is Ryan Bingham, a man who relishes traveling from one city to another on a virtually unending flight across the country, all for the purpose of firing people for a living.  Bingham doesn’t love what he does, though he’s good at it.  The film contains numerous, notable sequences of people being terminated from their jobs, some of which are devastating.  These are the emotional meat of the picture.  You will value your job when you leave the theater.  Bingham is so exceedingly proud of his ability to move from one place to another, removing people from their places of employment effortlessly, that he even offers a seminar on how to shed oneself of unnecessary possessions and relationships.  When this method of work and life ideology is threatened by an upstart co-worker, Anna Kendrick, who wishes to eliminate the travel aspect of their jobs by firing people via web-cam, Ryan is tasked with showing her that the simplicity with which she sees their task is folly.  He doesn’t just ‘fire’ people.  He has to make them feel okay about being fired.  As this siege on his livelihood begins to unfurl Bingham’s values begin to unfurl in tandem.  His declared loner status get called into question by said upstart who sees his life choice as warped, in turn cracks of doubt begin to form in his impenetrable, cynical armor when his family calls him in for his sister’s wedding.  In its own way, it all sounds like fairly routine movie stuff.  Growth, personal change, not being selfish, so on and so forth.  But it’s not exactly that to a tee.

Director Jason Reitman (Juno) directs everything with a cool, even handed sense, but he has tasked himself with walking a slippery slope of cinematic values.  On one hand, movies, for all their dubious morality, tend to advocate things like marriage and monogamy across the board.  But Clooney’s portrayal of Bingham is one of slick enjoyment.  It’s the culmination of numerous roles for him as his ability to play rapscallions and lovable loners culminates with this fine performance.  Though his job is a horrible one, he is not a horrible person.  He does not relish in the firing of people, he hates it.  It’s something he merely happens to be good at doing.  Characters like Bingham are supposed to learn that family and relationships are good things and that they should embrace them.  Next to that message the only thing more adhered to in Movieland is the message of individuality.  Movies love nothing more than to tell you to be yourself at all cost and tell the rest of the world to go to Hell if they don’t like it.  In this instance the two messages are at odds with one another and “Up in the Air” finds itself in a curious place trying to reconcile the two halves.  To put it clearly, Bingham is very happy with who he is, the audience begrudgingly likes him for who he is despite his unenviable tasks, so why is the movie trying to change him?  His only real crime is being really good at a really bad job.  The answer being there would be no movie without the change, so I digress.  As Bingham begins to wonder about his life and whether or not he’s made the right choices, he starts to feel his wanderlust ebb.  His sporadic and enjoyable relationship with a fellow life long business traveler, played by “The Departed’s” Vera Farmiga, starts to feel as if it could be something more than just occasional sexual bliss in hotel rooms.  And it’s at this point that a forgone conclusion becomes something a little different.

You’ve seen the scene in dozens of other films.  The romantic lead, Hanks, Cruise, Fox, etc., realizing who his life love is, feels compelled to find her at all costs and reconcile his love with her at that moment.  They run off in taxis, on horseback, motorcycles, any mode of transportation that can get them to their soul mate before they marry the other guy or walk away from the pre-ordained meeting place, never to be seen again.  I don’t know if “It Happened One Night” invented this plot device but it rarely changes.  “Up in the Air” manages to turn the scenario around in a unique way.  As our dashing, newly matured Clooney runs off to embrace his new life as a kept man who loves other souls instead of advocating their discarding, the movie yanks the rug out from under him.  It takes into consideration a question that almost no movie of this type ever does, that being ‘What happens when you’re emotionally ready to become something else, but have no real way to accomplish what you want to become?’  It’s all the trappings of traditional romantic comedy, but none of the convenience.  This particular tale gives our odd protagonist no easy out, and nowhere to turn.

“Up in the Air” follows movie logic to a tee by making Bingham evolve into something better than he was, but in the end he’s not much better off for changing.  We may not know what Bill whispered to Scarlet in “Lost in Translation.”  We can only guess if Virginia opened the door for Paul at the end of “Sideways.”  But regardless, we felt on some level that they were better off for their troubles, even if we can’t say for sure what happened to them.  Here, we’re left with an odd feeling that all of the growth, all of the desire to change, all that Bingham has been through may have been for nothing.  He’s left to wonder the friendly skies as his only refuge, just as when the story started.  The ending can be interpreted to varying degrees, but there’s a strong sense of a void hanging over things as the movie draws to a close.  It will likely leave some unsatisfied and shrugging, but it’s different and daring to say the least.  While I admire the small details that went into the telling of this now traditional movie story, calling it an instant classic is a bit of a reach.  It genuinely reflects the uncertainty of our age, but is too even tempered and limited in scope to applaud all that loudly.  It deserves more of an appreciative clap and pat on the back than that statue of a little gold man that so many covet.