Sunday, December 27, 2009

Movie Review: The Imaganiraium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaganiraium of Doctor Parnassus ***
Directed By:
Terry Gilliam.
Written By: Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown.
Starring: Christopher Plummer (Doctor Parnassus), Heath Ledger (Tony), Lily Cole (Valentina), Andrew Garfield (Anton), Tom Waits (Mr. Nick), Verne Troyer (Percy), Johnny Depp (Imaginarium Tony #1), Jude Law (Imaginarium Tony #2), Colin Farrell (Imaginarium Tony #3).

Terry Gilliam is one of the most visually imaginative filmmakers in the world right now. This is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good because every time you walk into a Gilliam movie, you have no idea what weird images you are going to see. He puts things on screen that most other filmmakers would not even attempt. It’s bad because I think he spends so much time on the visuals, that he doesn’t concentrate so much on the story. His last two films - The Brothers Grimm and Tideland - were as visually imagative as anything he has ever done - but both were still terrible movies. They never came together to make a cohesive statement on anything. He is such a perfectionist, and difficult, that some of his films never get off the ground. The documentary Lost in La Mancha documents his failed attempt to make a Man of La Mancha movie where everything that could go wrong did, until the whole thing was scrapped. His films are so hit and miss, that I both anticipate and dread each new Gilliam film in equal measure.

His latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is his best in quite some time. No, it does not quite rank with the Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas his truly great films, but it is certainly among the most interesting of his films.

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) made a deal with the devil, known as Mr. Nick (Tom Waits) thousands of years ago. Parnassus gets immortality and strange mind powers, while Mr. Nick gets the souls of any children he fathers when they turn 16. It is now modern day, and Parnassus has become a traveling carnival act where they try and get people to enter his “imaginarium”, a strange mirror where they end up in their own imagination, where they will have to make a choice. They can either take the hard road to enlightenment, i.e. Parnassus’ way, or the easy way which leads them to Mr. Nick. Parnassus doesn’t win often.

His daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) is on the cusp of her 16 birthday, but she doesn’t know that soon she will belong to the devil. This is when Tony (Heath Ledger) shows up. They find him hanging from the bottom of a bridge, and save his life. Parnassus and Valentina take a liking to Tony, who is charming and able to convince more and more people to enter the imaginarium. Not only that, they seem to pick Parnassus’s way, not Mr. Nicks when they do. But Anton (Andrew Garfield) and Percy (Verne Troyer), the other “employees” of Doctor Parnassus are not so sure. They sense something not quite right about him.

From beginning to end, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus puts interesting visuals on the screen. Particularly when people enter their own imaginations, Gilliam goes all out with the special effects. These are not just CGI effects like Cameron uses in Avatar, but visually inventive little effects. Gilliam has a much smaller budget than Cameron does, yet it seems that he leaves it all on the screen.

I am still not 100% sure what exactly happens in this movie. But unlike his last few movies, I get the feeling that with another viewing or two, I’d be able to piece everything together. Gilliam is still not the best storyteller, but this time for the most part the story works. It helps that he has a wonderful cast who makes their characters believable, even when they probably shouldn’t be. Plummer is perfect as the ancient Parnassus - drunken, depressed, resigned to the fact that he will always lose to Mr. Nick. For his part, Waits is one of the best Satan’s I have ever seen in a movie. With his trademark gravelly voice, along with a bowler hat, pencil thin mustache and a cigarette dangling from his holder. Lily Cole is beautiful and touching as Valentina. Best of all is Ledger, demented as Tony, who throws himself into the role with all he has. Because he died before the film was finished shooting, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell all have sequences inside Parnassus’ Imaginarium as Ledger’s Tony. Although it may not be what they had planned, it works remarkably well. I’m not quite sure Farrell quite captures the essence of Tony, but Depp and particularly Law are great substitutes for Ledger.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is mainly a visual experience. In that regard it is one of the most interesting films of the year. The acting elevates the story, but it still could have used some work in the writing department. But if you’re looking for something quite different this holiday season, you can certainly do worse.

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