Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Terry Gilliam's Visual Masterstroke And Heath Ledger's Final Performance Astound: The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus!

The Good: Direction, Acting, Plot, Character development, DVD (Blu-Ray) bonus features, Effects
The Bad: None
The Basics: A film by Terry Gilliam, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is an adult fable where a man liberates visitors to his roadshow through dreamscapes which remind them what is important and ties for best movie of all time in my reckoning!

Last year, something rather extraordinary happened. Yes, I had to alter my list of Best Movies Of All Time. The weirdest aspect of it might be the footnote, which is this: I think Watchmen (click here for that review) was the best film of 2009, but the moment my wife brought home the DVD of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, I realized I was seeing a movie on par with the very best film I had ever seen. So, while Watchmen might be the best movie of 2009, this is tied for best movie of all time in my pantheon of reviews.

There are so many facets to the average person that it is sometimes hard to reconcile the different aspects of them. In truth, the moment the death of Heath Ledger was announced, the cinephile beat out the human being within me and I found myself asking "What does that mean for The Dark Knight?" When I learned that The Dark Knight was not suffering as a result of Ledger's death, I became human enough to say "How horrible!" Then I learned that he died while making Terry Gilliam's latest film.

There are few directors whose works I am so engaged by that I want to see their entire pantheon of works. There are even fewer directors whose works I enjoy watching again and again such that I'll see their movies when they come out in theaters or will buy right away when they are released on DVD. In fact, only three names (and it is a decidedly eclectic collection) jump right to mind and the common element is that they are all three writer-directors and they have all three pulled off perfect films. They are P.T. Anderson, Kevin Smith and Terry Gilliam. So, when my partner brought home The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, I was thrilled because we had missed it in the theaters when it was originally released and because it was hailed as a masterpiece. In truth, Terry Gilliam's Brazil was the writer-director's masterwork, but it is impossible to watch The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus and not be blown away by the pure magic of the story and this film rivals it on every level.

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is a wealth of creativity, amazing performances and characters who resonate with the viewer long after the film is over. Now on DVD, one finds themselves wishing that Terry Gilliam would re-release the films to theaters because no matter how big one's television screen is, there must have been no experience quite like seeing this one on the big screen. Terry Gilliam paints with a giant canvass in this film and his tools are ones I have not traditionally enjoyed - Jude Law and Collin Farrell have never wowed me as they do in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus - but Gilliam gets the best out of them, while also presenting incredible performances by several lesser-known performers.

After a thousand years of life, Doctor Parnassus is dragged through London in an antiquated carnival style stage attempting to enlighten anyone who might actually pay attention to him. Accompanied by his diminutive assistant Percy, his daughter Valentina and his assistant, Anton, Doctor Parnassus bewilders most people he encounters by appearing to be a comatose man as a traveling sideshow act. But his act is far more than that, as a boy discovers when he crashes through the prop mirror in the wagon and is transported to a dreamworld where the fantastic is all around him and he has the chance to choose the direction of his life. Doctor Parnassus, however, is troubled as Valentina's sixteenth birthday is near and Mr. Nick, the devil, pops back up in Doctor Parnassus's life. While attempting to tell his daughter Valentina the truth about his past, the group rescues a man hanging from a bridge.

The stranger awakens, unsure of who he is or how he came to be hanged under the bridge. Enamored with Valentina and distrusted by Anton, the stranger - who soon comes to be known as Tony - begins to overhaul the traveling show to try to help Doctor Parnassus win his bet against Mr. Nick. As the truth comes out about Tony, Valentina's life hangs in the balance to see whose perspective: freedom or destruction those around Parnassus will choose!

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is more than just a visually spectacular film, it is a statement on society and humanity that resonates well with those who love great films, have the patience for a story's development and enjoy a story which has a timeless feel to it. Terry Gilliam has created a well-rounded film that is bound to stand the test of time, largely because it is visually innovative while telling a story which is timeless and reveals the essential human struggle. Mr. Nick, who is the devil, presents Doctor Parnassus with a very standard bet scenario which sets Parnassus up as an agent of freedom and imagination vs. conformity and temptation. The notion of sacrifice is explored thoroughly and cleverly in The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus.

Terry Gilliam makes the old new with this movie as the essential character struggle is a Faustian deal with the devil that has gone awry. Gilliam does a good job of setting the story up and one of the nicest aspects of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is that Gilliam does not simply tear all of the elements down to be a nonconformist. So, for example, Anton clearly has romantic feelings for Valentina from the beginning and Gilliam acknowledges that there is a very traditional attraction going on here through some wonderful dialogue between Percy and Parnassus. Similarly, when Tony appears, Mr. Nick is nearby and this sets the story up to include elements of treachery from Tony which Gilliam does an amazing job of expressing through Tony's dream sequence.

The film is also clever in the way it deals with the death of Heath Ledger and viewers who know this film was his last are likely to be surprised how little of the film he isn't in. It appears Ledger died when there were only three essential sequences left to create and Gilliam's working around it is brilliant. By establishing that in the dreamscapes of Doctor Parnassus individuals may see themselves differently, Gilliam is able to recast Tony in three dream sequences using Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Collin Farrell. The sequences work and they give Depp, Law and Farrell chances to utilize their talents in amazing ways, presenting clever performances unlike any others in their careers.

Most of the film is ruled by Christopher Plummer, who plays Doctor Parnassus. Plummer once again illustrates how he is an actor uninhibited by any range issues. In his portrayal of Doctor Parnassus, Plummer explores a wild range, from aged and tired to spry and feisty. He becomes lovable as Doctor Parnassus from his opening scenes where he is almost catatonic through flashbacks which characterize him as a man of faith and devotion to an ideal. All the while, Plummer is able to infuse a fatherly love for Valentina in his every look and action when costar Lily Cole is around.

Cole is an astonishing beauty and she plays off Plummer, Andrew Garfield (Anton) and Ledger exceptionally well. She has a playful quality that is innocent and rambunctious which make Valentina instantly lovable, not just a draw to the eyes. Even Verne Troyer is able to give a performance that gives him an emotional depth beyond most of his other characters. And Tom Waits is brilliant casting for Mr. Nick, easily making the devil seem almost real and complicated.

But from the moment Heath Ledger enters the film as Tony, he rules it. Ledger plays Tony first as a hapless amnesiac and later as a devious salesman and the character arc is matched by acting which makes the transitions and realizations make perfect sense. Ledger is dynamic and in his final performance, he illustrates even more depth and range than he did in The Dark Knight.

On DVD, there is an extended scene and the film looks great. Despite being called a "deleted" scene, the extra scene is actually just an extended version of one of the dream sequences in the movie which did not have special effects finished for it. Terry Gilliam also introduces the movie and there is a wonderful and thorough commentary track for it which is informative and entertaining. As well, there are casting sessions with Heath Ledger and special effects featurettes that are cool to see. There are also dozens of movie previews for this and other films. On Blu-Ray all of the above are included, plus a few extra goodies, most notably the cast and crew giving Heath Ledger a final sendoff.

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is an adult fable which reminds us that we have one life and it is wasted without a love for life. It's not possible for there to be a better tribute to an actor who died so young and this becomes a film which should be a wake-up call for millions trapped in mundane lives they cannot truly stand.

For other works creative films, please check out my reviews of:
Dark City
Battlefield Earth


For other film reviews, please check out my index page for a comprehensive listing by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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