Oct 18, 2009

Review Post 52: Ong Bak - The Beginning / The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

DIR: Tony Jaa / Panna Rittikrai
CAST: Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree

Tony Jaa famously went a little nuts while making this film in the jungle. One day the director/star disappeared from the set, and didn’t return for two months. This may go some way to explaining some of the shortcomings of this film.

Ong Bak - The Beginning, has nothing to do with the first film. This film is set in the 1400’s, as opposed to modern Thailand, and there is never any mention of Ong Bak. In the first film Jaa was a novice monk, here he’s a bandit seeking vengeance for the death of his father. Really though, who cares about the plot? This, like all martial arts films, is really about wanting to watch people punch and kick each other in various breathtakingly choreographed ways. The big problem there is that this film gets so bogged down in what is a deeply simplistic and rather poorly told plot that it takes forever to really get going. The last twenty minutes are one long, punishing, awesome, action sequence but up until then there is the feeling that Jaa and co-director Rittikrai are treading water.

The love interest is especially botched. The film spends a long time in flashbacks building up a love interest for Jaa, and when the film has them meet again towards the end… nothing happens. It as if someone forgot to write the scene. This is perhaps a small mercy, because Tony Jaa may be an amazing screen fighter, but he’s a terrible actor, and his squeaky voice doesn’t help, as it completely lacks gravitas. Perhaps it is unfair to denigrate Jaa for his acting, after all, Jackie Chan is no actor, nor is Yuen Biao.  The difference is that those performers have real screen charisma; you connect with them. Jaa is a blank slate - an unspeakably hard blank slate who is amazing at martial arts, sure, but a blank slate nevertheless.

Still, the first 70 minutes of the film have smattering of decent action, and the insanity of the last 20 minutes makes up for the fact that much of what has gone before is often pretty dull. Jaa’s movies famously claim to use no wires, no doubles and no CGI. That’s certainly in evidence here, as the final fight, which sees Jaa take on a frankly ludicrous amount of enemies, looks genuinely arduous and painful. The choreography is fluid, varied and stunning and Jaa and Rittikrai film the mayhem beautifully, always making sure that you can see the action, rather than obscuring it with the shaky-cam and hyperactive cutting so fashionable in Hollywood action films. Most jaw dropping is perhaps the prop sequence involving an elephant, which boasts stunts that one imagines even Jackie Chan might have balked at. There are also an admirable variety of styles on display here. Jaa’s thai boxing had become rather tired by the end of Tom Yum Goong (a.k.a. The Protector / Warrior King), but he’s learnt the lesson and here uses weapons - particularly a three sectioned staff - and traditional kung-fu to fine effect.

Ong Bak - The Beginning isn’t a great martial arts film, and may leave you feeling short changed, with an ending so abrupt it seems that the makers just ran out of film. That said, there are twenty minutes of near peerless action to enjoy here and if you like martial arts movies then that might just be enough.

DIR: Terry Gilliam
CAST: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer,
Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield

Terry Gilliam may be the unluckiest filmmaker alive. Disaster has befallen many of his films, both during and post-production, and The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus nearly ended up as the second film he was unable to finish.

The story of The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus concerns the eponymous character’s (Plummer) bet with the Devil, here known as Mr Nick (Waits). The currency is souls, the wager whether the easy pleasures of Mr Nick’s world or the imagination fuelled world behind Parnassus’ magic mirror can capture more and the prize, initially eternal life for Parnassus, has changed over the course of 1000 years. Now Parnassus must beat the devil to five souls or Mr Nick will take his daughter (Cole).

Unless you have spent the last 21 months on Mars you almost certainly know that about halfway through the production of Dr Parnassus the film’s star, Heath Ledger, died of an accidental drug overdose. Terry Gilliam was good friends with Ledger, having previously worked with him on The Brothers Grimm, and wanted to finish the film and preserve Ledger’s final performance. He managed to do so through a rather brilliant re-conceptualisation of Ledger’s role in which, each time the character of Tony enters into the realms of fantasy he is played by a different actor - Johnny Depp, Jude Law and finally Colin Farrell. In any other film this would have been a ludicrous solution to a seemingly intractable problem, but because of the nature of this film the device not only works brilliantly but it plays so naturally that you could believe that this was always how the film was supposed to be. Each actor gives us a different side of Tony, and they all do sterling work given the unusual nature of the job.

As you might expect of a film with a production history as troubled as this, Parnassus is a mess. Sometimes it is a terrible mess, at other moments it is a glorious mess, but it always remains a mess. The story sounds clear enough in the summary, but throwing Tony into the mix adds a lot of unnecessary complications into what is already a compelling tale before he comes along and the film starts to stumble in a second half that folds in on itself over and over, eventually beginning to trip over itself. The fact that Mr Nick keeps changing both the rules and the final prize in his wager with Parnassus doesn’t help either. At times I thought I’d quite like a flow chart to help me follow this movie.

Story, however, often seems like a secondary consideration for Gilliam, his often dazzling visuals taking precedent. He certainly doesn’t disappoint on that score here. There are moments of breathtaking visual loveliness; Cole’s dance with Farrell leaps to mind, as does the world of the Imaginarium as a whole. The only downside to the visuals is that sometimes it looks like the money has run out. This is most notable during Jude Law’s sequence, in which the CGI looks like something out of an early Playstation game. Whenever what we are looking at exists physically it is wonderful, with costume and production design departments outdoing themselves in every scene.

The performances are also something of a mixed bag, with some surprising ups and downs. Ledger, sadly, isn’t very impressive. He’s supposed to be British, but his accent goes on a world tour in every sentence with words that are in estuary English, then broadly American, before emigrating to Australia. You can’t fault the energy of his performance, or the sense of fun that comes from it, but it’s a shame that the technical aspect of it is so slipshod. Winning the wooden spoon is British actor Andrew Garfield, who is determinedly wooden as a young man who travels with the Imaginarium and is in love with Parnassus’ daughter Valentina. As Valentina, Lily Cole is the big surprise of the film. Cole is a model, and you can see why, she’s a stunningly beautiful, doll like redhead. Cole is also, apparently, incredibly intelligent (she’s at Cambridge University) and in her performance you can see the work of a smart and talented actress. What she lacks in experience Cole makes up in screen charisma and vivid emotion. She’s the emotional centre of the film, and the idea of the wager works largely because she is so good, especially in the scene in which she discovers the truth from her father. Christopher Plummer is effective as Parnassus, but he actually has little to do and little real effect on the story other than as device to make it possible. A mischievous performance by Tom Waits, who has an enormously good time hamming it up as Mr Nick, is also a real treat.

At times The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus feels less like a film than it does the contents of Terry Gilliam’s mind, emptied onto celluloid. This result in some wonderful oddness (a chorus of Policemen in suspenders singing “We Love Violence”) but also in a film that often feels disorganised and never quite pulls together in a satisfying way. This problem rears its head as Gilliam seems unsure how to close the film (settling, sadly, on a forced happy ending that runs against the grain of the film). Like much of its director’s work Dr Parnassus is frustratingly uneven, but when it works it can be dazzling.

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