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Sherlock Holmes vs. Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 30, 2009 at 12:57AM

One is slick, the other isn't.
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Thompson on Hollywood

One is slick, the other isn't.

Both period evocations are set in London with largely British casts, complete with horse-drawn carriages, belching smoke, high collars and waistcoats.

One's the authentic vision of a mad artist shooting on a relative shoestring ($30 million) with his heart on his sleeve. The other is a cannily commercial $90-million product launch selling a global name brand. Both opened well this holiday weekend, although one is a studio blockbuster (opening to $65 million) and the other led the new indie field.

Watching Terry Gilliam's brilliant The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I was swept away to another world, a swirling place of magic and enchantment, where anything can happen--Heath Ledger can turn into Johnny Depp or Jude Law or Colin Firtharrell, for example. I smiled with pleasure at the duel between two wily antagonists for the ages, the Devil (Tom Waits) and Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer). I worried for the fate of Parnassus's daughter (Lily Cole) and her young swain (Andrew Garfield). I loved their bits of theatrical business on their traveling theater on wheels and the beyond-the-mirror dreamscape that allowed Gilliam free visual rein. (Set in an indeterminate contemporary London, the film's feet are planted firmly in a period landscape of the imagination.) And diminutive Verne Troyer reminded me of my early Gilliam favorite, Time Bandits. Look, I'm an avowed Gilliam-phile, no matter how messy and meandering he gets: I even enjoyed his last film with Ledger, The Brothers Grimm.

And Sherlock Holmes , from Joel Silver and Guy Ritchie, was better than I expected, for which I credit Warners production exec-turned-producer Lionel Wigram (who devised the original story and comic book inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) along with Robert Downey, Jr. and his wife Susan, who also produced. Movies like this are huge, expensive logistical projects under heavy studio supervision. This picture is gorgeous: it boasts top-of-the-line cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jenny Beavan, composer Hans Zimmer and many splendid digital tableaus. The movie expertly blends the satisfying bromance of decadent Holmes (Downey) and straight-arrow Watson (Jude Law), who wants to break away to marry Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), with a lackluster plot driven by a garden-variety power-mad megalomaniac (Mark Strong), with complications from Holmes love interest, criminal Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). She gets somewhat short shrift: you can see the wheels grinding as the movie balances character bits to appeal to one audience segment against action set pieces for the other.

(At the Movies reviews Holmes and Parnassus.)

Which one of these less-than-perfect films do I like best? You know the answer. I vote for the scrappy original indie.

This article is related to: Independents, Studios, Reviews, Warner Bros./New Line, Sony/Screen Gems/Sony Pictures Classics


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.