17 February 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus


Cast: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Andrew Garflield, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Tom Waits

Writers: Terry Gilliam & Charles McKeown
Director: Terry Gilliam

Release: 25 December 2009

Lionsgate, 122 mins., Rated R

Imagination is a wickedly beautiful thing. One can conjure up limitless possibilities, a legion of sparkly new, fresh ideas, and bring to the screen such originality that it leaves its viewers in awe. Although not brimming with originality from second to second, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is rife with imagination. A fantasy world brought to life. Tim Burton-esque minus the major amount of Gothic overtones in even 'happy' scenes. Nah, instead this is the world of Terry Gilliam, who I have only encountered twice before: The Brothers Grimm (which I love) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which I hate). It's a safe bet to say that I will be paying a closer look to his filmography from now on...

Admittedly, the Imaginarium probably wouldn't have been on my radar if it wasn't for Heath Ledger and his unfortunate passing in 2008. I've been a fan-ish of Ledger's (10 Things I Hate About You and A Knight's Tale being prime examples), but his portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight officially solidified my love for the late actor. So going into Imaginarium, I probably wasn't heading in with the best intentions. I was intrigued on how writer/director Gilliam would finish out his vision with his main co-star missing from several key scenes. Through another example of brilliant ingenuity, Gilliam crafted a plot device that allows Tony, Ledger's character, to change faces once inside a mirror, which works as a portal to the individual's imagination. Um, a world of brilliant. To realize this idea, actors Johnny Depp (who Ledger owed inspiration for his performance as Tony to), Collin Farrel, and Jude Law. But anywho, back to that in a second...

Like nearly all movies with some true creativity, Doctor Parnassus barely made a pass theatrically. I was honestly flabbergasted a theater a few miles down was actually showing it, and it wasn't in Minneapolis! It was actually, y'know, nearish. So there was absolutely no way I was passing up this baby. And boy gee golly, I'm glad I did. Terry Gilliam crafted a visually stunning movie with phenomenal performances by everyone, and this is one title that definitely doesn't deserve to be overlooked.

Doctor Parnassus (Plummer) is the leader of a traveling theater troupe, which includes the young Anton (Garfield), who admires Valentina (Cole), and Parnassus' dwarf friend Percy (Troyer). They suck at making money, and constantly get ridiculed by civilians. To make matters worse, Parnassus has a gambling problem; he keeps making bets with Mr. Nick (Waits), a devilish entity with a appetite for souls, and now this demon wants Valentina, Parnassus' 16-year old daughter as payment. Along the way, they come across Tony (Ledger), a enigmatic man with memory loss who helps the theater troupe to make a few bucks and get Valentina out of her stint with the Devil. But in this imaginarium, everybody has second faces...

Notes & Reflections
Deal with the Devil stories are interesting. It's even more interesting when you have two main characters (Parnassus and Tony) that you're not quite sure of; they're constant surprises with whatever choice they make. Parnassus with his inability to stop gambling, and Tony who has unclear motives but is nonetheless helping the traveling troupe immensely. And then there's Mr. Nick, the Devil dressed in black, smoking his signature cigar all Joe Smooth like. Here's three rich characters that could, on their own, support this script and keep it strong. But luckily we're graced with three other remarkable characters and, furthermore, actors - Anton, Valentine, and Percy, each with their own identity and likability.

Valentine, the virginal, confused daughter of Parnassus who must face head-on living a rather messed up life or the very real possibility of eternal damnation in Hell for no crime of her committing. Anton, the young man in love with Valentine and sees the deception of those around him; the best 'Hero' character in the story (and it was hilarious seeing Anton's adult face juxtaposed on the child in the conclusion - friggin' hilarious). And then Percy, the long-time friend of Parnassus who tries to help his bud make the right choices, albeit not always successfully.

Just with these characters along we got a strong story. But Gilliam brings it several steps further: there's a magic mirror that transports you to wherever you can imagine, and by extent, along Gilliam to realize any creative ideas he's had brewing to the surface; there's a centuries-long bet between the Devil and a Mortal/Immortal man where anybody can be the victor; and the mysterious man found at the brink of death who can be either friend or foe. So, yeah, the script's wonderful.

The actors are the best thing about it, though. Christopher Plummer would have made a good Dumbeldore. He's able to be stern, humble, joyful, calculating, and old all with a slight facial movement. Plummer was 'da bomb, although he looked quite frighting sometimes with theater make-up on. Andrew Garfield was endearing as Anton, and Lily Cole has a beautifulness to her that is something to behold. And finally, of course, Heath Ledger bringing his A-game. Sort of mirroring a Jack Sparrow/Johnny Depp style with his body movements, and deepening his voice ever so slightly, it's quite obvious Ledger had some great fun with this role. And the really surprising bit was how much he had actually filmed - I thought there were going to be great lenghts of the film that needed revision, but he was in quite a lot.

And speaking of the presence of Tony, the transformation into Depp, Law, and Farrell was seamless. Unless you knew about the incident beforehand, the whole face change would never have given yah a second thought. As it stands, it's a brilliant device that allows three equally brilliant actors to shine. Depp gets the least of all, and doesn't really seem all that enthused about the project, weirdly; Law, on the other hand, was having great fun, but he didn't really seem to flow as another version of Tony; Farrell, on the other hand, did a exceedingly well job finishing Tony's story.

There's just a sense of wonder in Doctor Parnassus that is severely lacking in movies today. James Cameron's Avatar was able to transport audiences to another planet with his three-dimensional effects; and Peter Jackson resurrected dinosaurs and monsters in combat on the big screen with 2005's King Kong. But the ability to just run wild without any real restraints to rationality and logic? Now there's a wide-eyed concept that is fully brought to fruition, and the result is mesmerizing. There's plenty of cool things, freaky things (a river turning into a snake), crazy things (a giant face and open mouth coming up from the soil), and beautiful things (the bright colored atmosphere of Jude Law's Tony). Also, strangely, the art design has a similar Tim Burton-esque vibe with their eccentric presentations.

Any drawbacks to the movie would be that it needs a little bit tighter editing, and a better marketing team.

Awesome Scene of Awesomeness (Spoilers)
Inside the imaginarium, Tony (Law), chased by the police, walks with giant ladders that extend to the sky, and he's just having a blast. The Pleasantville color-coding of Tony's world shatters as the police etch closer, and things take a dark turn.

Final Veridiction
Weird, brilliant, and a vehicle of fantastic performances, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a treat of pure imagination. Coming from a bloke who didn't really expect to be liking this at all, it's a bit surprising to say that I'd completely buy this beauty on Blu-Ray, and definitely has high re-watch value. If the contents of the movie is second to your curiosity of Heath Ledger's final performance, than in that regard you won't be disappointed. His surprisingly lengthy screentime and fantastic performance is a wonderful send-off. Overall, give it a watch. But pray Tim Burton never decides to make his own Imaginarium - one can only imagine how truly messed up that film could be.

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