Time Bandits (1981)
★ / ★★★★
Fascinated by the contents of his books, it is most opportune that Kevin (Craig Warnock) crosses paths with a group of six dwarves on the run from “the supreme being” (Ralph Richardson), insisting that they return the map because they do not understand the full extent of its power. The artifact allows those who can read it properly to be able to visit different times by jumping inside so-called time holes. However, the dwarves, led by Randall (David Rappaport), use it simply to enter different eras and steal riches.
It easy to see why “Time Bandits,” based on the screenplay by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam, has ardent fans. It is silly, has a good amount of imagination, quite unpredictable at times, and the visual effects are so retro that I could not help but be reminded of dubbed Japanese television shows I used to watch as a kid. But the film is not very good. Its greatest limitation comes in small sizes and, boy, are they difficult to endure.
The dwarves function as mere decorations and they are allowed to talk too much without actually saying or doing anything of value. Aside from Randall, the one who keeps the map, we learn nothing about the dwarves other than they like their treasures. They think the same way, act the same way, and talk the same way. They are dispensable and when one’s life comes in contact with danger, I found myself rooting for him to stay dead. That way, perhaps there would be one less annoyance stumbling and bumbling about on screen.
The main character is supposed to be Kevin but he is drowned by many distractions. I enjoyed seeing his home life: when he has something to say about what he has just read, how his parents do nothing but comment on the latest gadget or appliance advertised on television. The story is supposed to have been the value of Kevin’s adventure, how a boy with no one to mirror his interests gets a first-hand experience on subjects that captivate him. He meets various figures like Robin Hood (John Cleese), Agamemnon (Sean Connery), Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), among others and watching his reaction upon meeting the people he has read about is magical in itself. Instead, the babbling dwarves are often front and center and they water down his experience.
The sets are quite beautiful even if a lot of them are obviously shot in a studio. I admired the gothic look of the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness where Evil (David Warner), who wishes to claim the map from the dwarves to rule the universe, resides. By contrast, I liked the brightness of Mycenaean Greece. I could not help but notice the seemingly never-ending desert, how yellow the sand appears and how hot it must have been to be in that environment. It is important that the setting of that period appeals to the audience because Kevin himself wishes to stay there. I wished the screenplay had exploited a level of sadness underneath the child wanting to stay with a stranger, Agamemnon, in a foreign land and time rather than to be reunited with his parents again.
This is another crucial problem with the film: it is unwilling to break away from the expected and stale comedy. The best journeys cover a spectrum of emotions. Here, there is only a thin layer of wonder and attempts—mostly ineffective—to make us laugh. The material would have been much better if Kevin had been left to his own devices so we could measure how smart and resourceful he was. I wanted to see how he could apply the knowledge he had accumulated from books to get himself out of prickly situations.
Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Time Bandits” is appropriately titled in that I felt as though my time had been stolen. It is not all bad but a lot of it feels like a waste of time, recycled material from better, edgier, more thoughtful fantasy-adventures.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a disease killed ninety-nine percent of the world’s population and forced the survivors to live underground, James Cole (Bruce Willis), a convict with a tough mind and knack for observation, was chosen by a group of scientists to “volunteer” in an experiment. If he decided to take on the project, he would receive a full pardon for his crimes. The assignment involved time travel and tracing the precise path of the virus’ introduction to the population. He was supposed to be sent to 1996 but actually ended up in 1990 where he was immediately apprehended by the police and sent to a mental institution. What made “Twelve Monkeys,” based on the screenplay by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, more than a standard time travel film was its ambition to eventually ask the audience which reality was “real” after it had actively blurred the lines among past, present, and future. Although we didn’t spend plenty of time to explore the ravaged future, it provided enough haunting images, from an abandoned metropolis covered in ice where wild animals roamed to the dismal jail where convicts awaited their destinies. The scientists of various specializations were of suspect characters. There was a general feeling that the experiment in question was not really what they claimed. Meanwhile, the present seemed equally unforgiving in aesthetics. The bright but claustrophobic mental institution was crowded by men and women under the influence of drugs, the deceptive calm often interrupted by a very colorful madman named Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). James and Jeffrey eventually became allies after the former unveiled his mission to the latter. I enjoyed that while the duo were given a chance to bond, the atmosphere of paranoia aimed to convince our gut from truly trusting Jeffrey even if his actions proved otherwise. Like the worlds that James jumped in and out of, his relationship with Jeffrey was equally full of questions and uncertainties. This was the reason why Cole’s relationship with his psychiatrist, Kathryn (Madeleine Stowe), turned out to be of utmost importance. It couldn’t be denied that Kathryn cared for her patient immensely. Stowe did a wonderful job in showing us her character’s struggle between professional and personal, between wanting to help James and being with him. The eventual romance didn’t feel like a distraction because it remained true to the theme of duality. For instance, James was a criminal and a potential savior; Kathryn was a pragmatist and a believer. However, the pacing was not always consistent. The kidnapping situation between James and Kathryn felt too contrived and contained very transparent seeds that would later move the plot forward. More importantly, we were never given a chance to really understand the mind of the person responsible for unleashing the virus. Therefore, its final scenes were not as impactful as they could have been given that we only appreciated the complexities of one side. “12 Monkeys,” inspired by Chris Marker’s “La jetée” and directed by Terry Gilliam, astutely diluted its bleak and gloomy environments with bright energy and questions that held weight. As a result, it was worth looking back and analyzing if we had mistaken certain red herrings for truths, vice-versa, which was a brilliant way of putting us in James’ shoes all over again.
★★★ / ★★★★
When an innocent man was taken by the police and tortured to death, Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who worked for a passively tyrannical (and ultimately incompetent) government, was assigned to take a closer look at the computer error. Despite being aware that the many confusing bureaucracies that often led to dead-ends didn’t always serve the citizens’ best interests, Sam chose to retreat to his fantasy world when he felt overwhelmed. In his daydream, he was a powerful winged warrior who dueled a Samurai in order to rescue a beautiful woman. Reality and fantasy collided when Sam ran into Jill (Kim Greist), sharing great resemblance to the girl of his dreams, a woman suspected of terrorist activities like bombing public places. Directed by Terry Gilliam, “Brazil” was an adventurous satire that is worth viewing multiple times. There were heavy symbolisms, like a man being eaten by paperwork, and scenes that didn’t always fit into the big picture. For instance, the two electricians who seemed to gain some sick pleasure torturing Sam as they slowly took over his home. Granted, the scenes were very funny especially when Robert De Niro’s mysterious character appeared to lend Sam a helping hand. However, the picture was most fascinating when it tackled the absurd. Sam’s mother (Katherine Helmond) and her friends were obsessed with plastic surgery. Despite the many “complications,” they were willing to go back and endure the pain of having their skin cut up and stretched up to their scalp. It was almost like watching an addiction. It was hilarious but it held some semblance of truth in today’s obsession with youth and its relationship with the magic of science. What I found strange was how romantic the movie was at times. The film referenced Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca” and its influence showed. The courtship scenes between Sam and Jill were silly and tender, yet it had darkness looming over the edge as something bigger than both of them threatened their budding relationship. It was interesting that Jill had the more masculine qualities, like driving a big truck that she called her cab, while Sam was the hopeless romantic who was hesitant to take action. Lastly, I found the final twenty minutes to be very hypnotic. While it didn’t make much sense as a whole, like in our dreams, sometimes the parts were more meaningful. What Sam went through personified the nightmare of the dystopian world that he and his loved ones happened to inhabit. “Brazil” was an ambitious and imaginative film which was not unlike watching someone’s dreams. It requires a bit of thinking from us and, more importantly, recognition that our government and society may be heading in a similar direction.
Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, The (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” stars Christopher Plummer as the title character who won a bet against the devil (Tom Waits) and gained immortality. About a thousand years later, Doctor Parnassus now with a daughter (Lily Cole), the devil came back to make another deal. That is, whoever seduced five souls into entering a magical mirror and making certain decisions would win and ultimately keep the girl. Quirky characters played by Andrew Garfield, Verne Troyer and Heath Ledger (with a mysterious past) were a part of Dr. Parnassus’ traveling performers. I thought this was a particularly challenging film to watch because the fantastic elements mixed with playing around with time and malleable loyalties of characters were difficult to keep track in one sitting. Added on top of it all was Ledger’s untimely death so Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell had to come in and fill in his shoes whenever Ledger entered the cryptic mirror. While the three did a good job across the board, I thought none of them could match the intensity and fluidity that Ledger put on the table. The visuals were a sight to behold but sometimes the picture got too carried away with the images where it took some power away from the story. I thought the movie functioned best when the story was at the forefront and the visuals were used as an aid to make the players realize something within themselves. For instance, I thought one of the most effective scenes in the movie was when Depp lured a rich lady into stepping onto a boat to meet her fate. There was something about it that was so poetic–almost touching–but at the same time creepy because of the anticipation of what would happen to her next. When the story and the images worked together, the project had me in a vicegrip. Unfortunately, exemplary scenes like that came few and far between. Another problem I had was only toward the end did we get to see what lengths Dr. Parnassus would go through to save his daughter. Most of the time, he was just in the background drinking like there’s no tomorrow while the movie focused on Ledger’s past. I was less interested in the mysterious stranger’s past. I actually wanted to know more about the man who lived for a thousand years and the many things he had to go through and only to meet the devil again at the most inopportune time. In a nutshell, the lead character needed more dimension by means of a more focused writing. Imagination is something that “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” directed by Terry Gilliam, did not lack. However, the execution was ultimately weak and I felt like it could have been so much darker. I wouldn’t mind seeing a remake of this film twenty or thirty years from now because the elements of a great film were certainly there. It’s just that circumstances prevented it from reaching great heights.