Winter chills, movie thrills

The winter of 2009 saw a number of blockbuster releases that both generated large revenues at the box office and left behind a trail of mystique in theatres. From the legacy of enigmatic personas to worlds of fantasy, Sherlock Holmes, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and Avatar were able to capture the magic of the holidays and inspire the hope of a new year.

When was the last time moviegoers were treated to a truly memorable adaptation of Sherlock Holmes? Guy Ritchie can’t remember either, and felt it was about time he gave people one to remember. Starring Robert Downey, Jr. as the eponymous hero, Ritchie’s film showcases a new kind of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st century: one with brute strength, a scraggly and raw exterior, and a romantic interest.

Using the help of his headstrong sidekick John Watson (Jude Law) as well as his former flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Holmes must become familiar with Lord Blackwood’s (Mark Strong) dark rituals in order to thwart the Lord’s takeover of the British Empire and put an end to his satanic human sacrifices. The film’s greatest moments include the fight scenes in slow motion, in which Downey, Jr. first demonstrates exactly how Holmes will execute the knockout of his opponent within the next few seconds, and impressively performs it punch for punch.

While greatly suspenseful and full of charm, the film appears to be grasping for laughs at times, but not because the script is poorly written. On the contrary, there are a number of cleverly scripted moments that ultimately go unnoticed (such as the bantering between Downey, Jr. and Law like an old married couple) because of Downey, Jr.’s sometimes flawed attempts at a British accent. While he gives a very intriguing performance as the mystery-solving enigma, Downey, Jr. often slurs the native speech that comes so easily to the English-born Law, and though Downey, Jr.’s quick wit and curt comebacks prompt a chuckle or two, one must really strain to catch the majority of his sporadic mutterings. Nevertheless, he and Law command the screen as the quaint and bickering duo, and though initially a bit static, Law proves he is just as worthy of acclaim and adoration as his celebrated co-star. He gives the film exactly what it needs: a bit of class, some wit, and the boldness to zing Holmes once in a while, and gives Watson a rare taste of the limelight.

If people are paying triple the price of a film ticket at the Toronto International Film Festival, chances are the movie is getting a lot of buzz. Before its release on Christmas Day, Terry Gilliam’s fantasy flick The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus premiered at TIFF this past September, where eager fans were the first to see the late Heath Ledger’s last career appearance. Though it affirms the tragic reality of an amazing actor’s untimely death, Ledger’s abridged performance is nothing short of brilliant, as is the remainder of the film as a whole.

Known for his bizarre yet compelling films, Gilliam creates a world in which a person’s imagination becomes their desired reality, even if that reality will only ever be an illusion. The film is packed with symbolism, and the most prominent theme is that of choice: will the abusive drunk climb the stairs to redemption or will he satisfy his impulse at a nearby bar? Will the Russian mob join the police that beckon them, or will they seek refuge in the care of their comforting babushka? The obvious choice usually ends in peril.

Can we ever obtain something that tempts us, and live to say we did not regret it? This question plagues the thousand year-old Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a theatre troupe leader who can control the minds of people and make them see their most wonderful dreams, or their most horrible realities. In exchange for immortality, Parnassus makes a deal with the devil (Tom Waits), but when Parnassus desires his youth back, he is granted this wish on the condition that his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) becomes the property of the devil on her 16th birthday. A race against time ensues to correct Parnassus’ unforgivable mistake, but the theatre troupe fortunately stumbles across a strange man named Tony (Ledger), whose charm and charisma makes the troupe’s performances magical again.

Tony remembers nothing of his old life, but adopts a new one with the theatre troupe and further learns to understand Parnassus’ abilities. Val becomes more attracted to Tony, and Anton (Andrew Garfield), who loves Val, becomes wary of Tony’s past. Though regrettable that Ledger could not showcase the entire transformation of Tony, Gilliam’s decision to recast the role instead of axing the whole project proved to be an excellent decision. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, all close friends of Ledger and conveniently similar-looking for the role, were chosen to portray the character of Tony at various stages in the dream world (while Heath played the real-life Tony). The final cut comes together seamlessly, and the dedicated effort put forth in Ledger’s memory will remain a powerful testament to one of Hollywood’s most gifted talents.

Perhaps the most highly anticipated film of 2009 was James Cameron’s Avatar, a project that has kept the Titanic director busy for the past 14 years. Combining live-action and computer-generated imagery, Avatar is a remarkable piece of filmmaking that Cameron had initially hoped to release way back in the 90s, but didn’t because the technology needed hadn’t been invented yet. The film grossed over $250,000,000 worldwide in its opening weekend and has been released in multiple formats, including RealD 3D as well as IMAX 3D (the former provides a more realistic perception of depth, while the latter really jumps off the screen at the viewer).

The film takes place in the distant future on Pandora, a moon inhabited by the indigenous N’avi humanoids who are preventing humans from extracting precious and lucrative rocks on the land they occupy. In order to understand the existence of the N’avi and earn their trust, Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) creates a system of avatars in which humans can live through scientifically-designed N’avi surrogate bodies in order to be more equipped for the wilds of Pandora. The marines send Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) into Pandora to convince the N’avi race to evacuate their home or else be killed, but when he becomes attached to the world that he must ultimately help destroy, he must make a decision whether to remain loyal to the humans or to live among his new race. Yet this distinction is exactly what Avatar tries to erase, and instead attempts to instil the notion that all races ultimately have the right to exist, no matter how different they appear to be.

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