Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Is it the weekend yet ...? The first week back after a break is always tough, but this one seems particularly killer. Anyways, I have a lot to talk about, but in the interest of time I wanted to jump right in with a review of Terry Gilliam's latest film ...


- It can be hard to talk about Terry Gilliam's movies in the context of a review. His movies tend to have ambitious narratives, but they also function an entirely different level that most mainstream movies don't. His movies often work like moving paintings. They hit you with abstract ideas. They require individual interpretation. They bombard you with images that don't strictly exist to advance the plot, but that are simply on the screen to stimulate your imagination. Sometimes his movies work, sometimes they don't, and oftentimes the end result is some nebulous middle ground. But a film by Gilliam is always worth watching.

And The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is definitely a sight to behold. This is Gilliam operating in full-on fantasy mode, and that means that the film is overflowing with eye-popping imagery and all sorts of general craziness. When you watch a lot of modern movies, you sort of get used to a standard look and feel. CGI starts to look the same. F/X look the same. Not so with Gilliam - he has a distinct visual style that uses CGI less as a tool to emulate reality and more as a digital paintbrush. With the world of Dr. Parnassus as his canvas, this is Gilliam-gone-wild.

The plot of the film is kind of all-over-the-place, but, at the least, it presents us with an intriguing premise. Thousands of years ago, the leader of a mystical order of monks ran afoul of the Devil himself. The Devil tricks the monk, aka Dr. Parnassus, into making a wager. The terms are these: Dr. Parnassus is granted immortality, and in exchange, he must participate in the following contest - he must wander the world and find people to step through a magic mirror - a doorway into their own souls. Once inside the mirror, a person can choose one of two paths - the path of good or the path of sin. If more people choose sin than righteousness, the Devil wins. If the oppossite occurs, then Parnassus bests the Devil. And as an added bonus, the life of the doctor's daughter may or may not hang in the balance as a result.

And so Parnassus and his ragtag band of misfits travels from place to place in their rickety carnival cart, putting on a curio-show in order to attract unwitting souls into the doctor's mirror. The whole thing is sort of absurd when viewed in a straightforward manner, but it works on a more metaphorical level. You can't help but think of Dr. Parnassus as a stand-in of sorts for Gilliam himself. Afterall, in a world of slick blockbusters and movies-by-committee, Gilliam is a Parnassus-like eccentric, peddling his strange and unique brand of sideshow to the masses, daring them to embrace the bizarre, to take a chance by stepping through the looking glass into the topsy-turvy world of his movies.

A lot of the movie has that kind of symbolic bent to it. It's a little strange though because the story is somewhat abstract and ambiguous, but at times is more straightforward in its narrative. The mixture doesn't always work. Just when you start to feel like you understand the rules of the wager between Parnassus and the Devil, the movie throws you for a loop. It can be a little frustrating, but again, this is one where it's probably best not to focus too much on details, and just let yourself get caught up and immersed in the film's fantasy world.

It helps that Parnassus is filled with such a compelling cast of actors and actresses. While everyone wants to talk about Heath Ledger and his final on-screen role, the two real stars here are probably Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus and Tom Waits as "Mr. Nick," aka The Devil. Plummer is frantic and whimsical, but also dramatic and filled with gravity as Parnassus, and he's always compelling when on screen. Meanwhile, Tom Waits is awesomely devilish as Mr. Nick. Suffice it to say, it's a lot of fun to watch the two interact. I also thought the movie's younger actors were pretty interesting. Andrew Garfield is funny and quick on his feet as Parnassus' young protege, Anton. And Lilly Cole has a real presence and a definite mystique as the doctor's teenaged daughter. I can only hope she is a bit older than her character's age (16) in real life though, because man, Terry Gilliam goes all out in terms of hypersexualizing her in the film. In other circumstances it'd probably creepier, but Cole has one of those ageless faces where she seems like a very old soul trapped in a younger woman's body. That said, I think you had to slightly squirm at a couple of pretty risque scenes involving her character.

Of course, Dr. Parnassus does feature the final performance from Heath Ledger, as I alluded to earlier. And Ledger is really good here. It's really a tragedy, because after his incredible performance in The Dark Knight, as The Joker, Ledger really did seem to be taking his acting to another level. The fact that he plays such a complex character here with so much apparent ease is a sign that Ledger was upping his game. Here, he plays Tony, a mysterious fellow who is saved by Parnassus and his crew when they find him hanging by a noose, on the verge of death (yes, that image is a bit disturbing ...). Tony begins working for Parnassus, and it soon becomes clear that he's a somewhat morally ambiguous character, someone who could go down the path for good or the path of evil. So of course, his fate becomes inextricably tied to that of Parnassus and his magic mirror.

Now, as you have probably heard, Heath Ledger tragically passed away before he had shot all of his scenes for the movie. However, it worked out so that the scenes that had yet to be shot were those in which Tony passes into the CGI-heavy fantasy world of the magic mirror. So Terry Gilliam was able to pull off an interesting trick in the face of tragedy. He tweaked the script so that each time Tony passes through the mirror, he emerges looking slightly different, in accordance with how the person who goes with him sees him. This means that, inside the mirror world, we get versions of Tony played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. All three are really good subbing in for Ledger, and each stays true to their own persona while also keeping continuity. Depp is funny in a Jack Sparrow-ish way, Law is energetic and neurotic, Farell is a bit more suspicious and sinister.

There are moments in Dr. Parnassus that kind of encapsulate the movie's strengths and weaknesses. Moments that are visually thrilling but narratively confusing and disjointed. But I don't mean to make this movie sound like Transformers 2. This isn't sound and fury signifying nothing. There is an artistry behind these visuals, behind this premise, that is compelling and fascinating and uniquely Gilliam. Like I said, it doesn't always 100% work, but even when the movie feels messy and random, it's still interesting. I'd say it's well worth your time to enter the Imaginarium.

My Grade: B+

Stay tuned for some TV Reviews and a look at Crazy Heart. Back soon with more!

No comments:

Post a Comment