Oh dear, even the title screams “Terry Gilliam”. Lay on the rococo wackiness; gild all available lilies; let a thousand fantastications bloom. Some of us think Gilliam should be forced to sit in a bare room for a year directing Samuel Beckett plays. Instead, in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus () – an overdone blow-out of a modern fairy tale – he roams about like a starving man at a buffet, scooping up helpings of King Lear, The Tempest, Dr Faustus and Alice through the Looking Glass.
Christopher Plummer’s Dr Parnassus could be the conflated protagonist of the first three, reborn in singulo. His touring-show “imaginarium” – disappear through the faux mirror at the back of the stage and you are in far-flung fantasylands – is both his Prospero magic-world and his Learish tragic kingdom, while his daughter (Lily Cole doing Cordelia/Miranda/Alice) is the hostage in his bargain struck with the Devil (Tom Waits). The joker in the plot’s deck is played by Heath Ledger, saved from a Blackfriars Bridge hanging by Team Plummer to become the handy wild card in their soul-trading game with Satan.
The convolutions whimsy on for two hours. Gilliam, we know, has a great eye for scenery – Dalí deserts, floral paradises, a macabre river that rises up in one scene like a devil-headed cobra – but an erratic track record with dialogue and actors. Plummer and Co try to make the fustian come alive. But it only does so with Ledger, monkeying cleverly with his line-readings, and with the brilliant three-card trick Gilliam has played in staging the late actor’s uncompleted scenes. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell float through in Ledger’s likeness – luxury casting – and bring some of the magic missing whenever human stardust is not around.
Is Park Chan-wook a man or a theme park? I sometimes suspect him of being the latter: a giant Korean amusement ground that spills its exotic imaginings, via cinema, across the world. In “Park Chanwook” you meet strange murderers (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance), bloody avengers (Oldboy) and now in Thirst (), enlivened by an artist’s craft (well, half-enlivened), a vampire priest.
Sang-tyun (Song Kang-ho), a Catholic missionary infected in Africa with “Emmanuel virus”, returns to Korea to become a tortured miracle-worker, curing the sick while stricken with what film geeks know better as Dracula virus. Neck-biting tendency; aversion to daylight; uncontrollable sexual desire. When Sang-tyun falls for a married woman (Kim Ok-bin), we know it will be one-stop shopping at the doom and fatality store. Vampirisation for her; murder for her husband; calamity for anyone getting in the way.
Once on course, he is uncontrollable. I don’t mean the hero, I mean the director. Park’s gallows wit and visual inventiveness keep us alert for an hour amid the ramshackle story structuring. The shadow-dappled walls of African mission or Korean hospital have a Murnau magic; the dialogue is often deadpan-droll. (“I’m helping potential suicides,” says Sang-tyun, accounting for a couple of murders.) But as subplots and sub-themes multiply – including some laboured jabs at Christianity – 133 minutes start to seem a long time in vampirism. Our attention leaps and falls like a candle flame, finally guttering to exasperation when a car-boot lid, struggled over by two characters on a beach, becomes the climactic portal between doom and salvation.
Le Donk and Scor-zay-zee () comes from another cottage-industrial outlet, Sheffield’s Shane Meadows. (And another theme park manqué: “Shane Meadows” – a fun-filled parkland with animatronic northerners wired for vocal patois and local-colour larks.) Meadows made the winning This is England and the more winning A Room for Romeo Brass. His new film is medium-winning, giving actor/co-writer Paddy Considine room to scribble riffs on a favourite off-screen persona of the performer’s – a garrulous roadie with a notional inside track on how to succeed in the rock biz – while the script is torn up, when convenient, for ad libbing.
Considine’s Le Donk is very funny, though history must decide whether he has plagiarised Steve Coogan’s Tommy Saxondale or Coogan has plagiarised him. Barging into rehearsals for an open-air Arctic Monkeys concert, Le Donk brings his rap protégé “Scor-zay-zee” (played by the actual same-name rapper), a dozy-looking ball of obesity who snaps into life once the auditioning mike is on. On either side of this midsection, Le Donk rails at life, society and his pregnant wife (Olivia Coleman), who has shacked up with a younger bloke. Though he would like to be a good dad, he draws the line at resuming family life after the baby’s birth – “I can watch him grow via the f***ing web” – and soon returns to his default vocation: boozer, braggart, tall story teller. The film has about as much sense of structure as – well, as Thirst, but I laughed a fair bit.
Christopher Smith must belong to the Norns Union. In Triangle (), a metaphysical horror film, he uses an ordinary, even tawdry, length of yarn to tie us in narrative knots. Then he cuts the yarn at the perfect, mesmerising moment.
Ten minutes in, the blonde girl (Melissa George) turns up at the yacht jetty for the fun trip with friends. But where is her briefly glimpsed autistic child? And why does she seem dazed, confused, even in shock? Ten minutes on, after their boat has capsized, a liner looms into view and they board the mysteriously abandoned vessel, whose sole tenant – flitting and murdering among the shadows – is a masked and hooded gunman…
Think of Memento and take away the artiness. Triangle darts about in the same mazes of déjà vu. Is the heroine seeing her future? Or her past? Is her child dead? Or is she? Yet the tale is rackingly involving and, as corpses multiply, fearless of appearing penny-dreadful. Smith also made the loopy shocker Severance. This is becoming a body of work to watch.
Pontypool () is the week’s third novelty horror film and possibly the best. Starting in a radio station in the Canadian sticks, where the disc jockey (Stephen McHattie) reports a sudden rise in the zombie demographic, the film’s setting stays confined while its imagination starts to go off-world. Frights multiply. Normal people become abnormal. By the end, what people say is literally as scary as what they do, the film turning its variation on Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast into a “war of the words”. Bruce McDonald directs a tiptop cast. Tony Burgess, scripting from his own novel, clearly saw the grand guignol potential in the computer virus, in the way great plagues can be planted in tiny units of understanding.