Sunday, December 27, 2009


When Heath Ledger passed away it looked as if the latest Terry Gilliam film
'The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus" would go the way of Gilliam's Don Quixoteas; a movie derailed by hardship and tragic circumstances. Instead the acting community rallied behind the film (especially Johnny Depp, Colin Ferrel and Jude Law) and helped Gilliam finished what could be his best movie since Time Bandits. Lacking the annoying confusion of 12 Monkeys or the schmaltzy nature of The Fisher King, Parnassus is a complete statement, a story devoid of gimmicks or pretentious director tricks. This is the movie Gilliam was born to make, the one that all his other movies were practice for. It's interesting because it shares a lot of the same visual elements as Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes but where as that seems tacky and forced Parnassus is fascinating and necessary for the story.

Telling you the story behind Parnassus would be akin to walking out of a theater in 1980 screaming "VADER IS LUKE'S DAD!!!" but suffice it to say there hasn't been a more layered or compelling story in film this year. Gilliam does a great job of controlling his visual style by giving himself two separate realities to play in; the real world and the world of imagination. The real world is London and Parnassus is the man behind a traveling carnival show featuring his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his assistant Percy (Verene Troyer) and his apprentice Anton (Andrew Garfield). This misfit family stumble upon a stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger) who changes their lives and the direction the act will follow forever. The imaginary world and how it ties into the real world is just something you'll have to experience for yourself.

What makes Parnassus so good is how the script, direction and performances string together to form an unbreakable rope that weaves this elaborate tapestry and never let's it get out of control. Gilliam is so restrained in this film that when he does get to go off it becomes brilliant instead of over-the-top. This restraint allows him to place layer on top of layer from the script with out Parnassus becoming confusing or convoluted. With so much going on there is always a sharp focus on story so you never begin scratching your head wondering what the hell is going on. Gilliam relies on the audience being intelligent so there's no spoon feeding but he doesn't hide the silverware from you either. Combining both strong story and direction allows the film peel away layer after layer so the audience is held captive by what's going on.

Performance wise everybody is not only wonderful but also perfectly cast. Christopher Plummer has one of the toughest jobs because Parnassus is both a magical entity to be feared and a drunken fool to be laughed at. His choices in life make him reprehensible but if the audience doesn't sympathize with him the film will be lost. Plummer has to make an annoying, egotistical drunk somebody we root for and he does it masterfully. Tom Waits, the actual physical embodiment of the world cool, is perfect as Mr. Nick aka The Devil and I even loved Verne Troyer who I usually can't stand. His world weary assistant is the voice of reason throughout the film and Troyer knows it. He doesn't mug for the camera or try to be Mini Me, instead he plays his part with razor sharp talent.

The hot-as-ten-suns Lily Cole steps up the plate as Valentina, Parnassus's young daughter who is starting to come into her own. It would be easily with the retina scorching looks that Cole has to play her character as overly sexy or overly spoiled but Cole walks the line very well. By the film's end you still understand that she's anatomically crippling but you're much more focused on her performance. The real gem of the movie is Andrew Garfield as Anton because he is the soul of the entire piece. Garfield holds his own with Ledger, Plummer, and anybody else he acts alongside. Anton is the moral center of the carnvial troupe but he's never preachy and his ability to show vulnerability without it being weakness is a nice change of pace. Garfield can be charming, annoying, brave or laugh out loud funny, switching all of it at the drop of a dime. I expect big things from this young man in the future.

As for Ledger's performance, well, it's almost hard to watch. Seeing him on screen in Parnassus and remembering his turn as The Joker you really see what an incredible talent he was and how tragic his loss is. Ledger's turn as Tony is perfect, almost like a song. Ledger is not afraid to get dirty, to put his good looks on the back burner and be what the character neesd him to be. His play as Tony is dark but compelling. You don't trust his character but you really want to hang out with him. if The Joker was Ledger going completely off the reservation then Tony is what would happen if he walked to the edge and started waving to people. Tony isn't all there but he isn't crazy, that ability to keep us guessing is ultimately what ties the movie together.

The Imagniarium Of Doctor Parnassus is a machine of many parts all working together in perfect order to bring you one of the best movies of 2009. As he gets older Gilliam is becoming a better storyteller without losing his ability to make things visually fascinating. I'm so glad this movie was finished and found a way to be released. It's a movie everybody should see, talk about, and then see again. I'm hoping seeing this will remind filmmakers that you can make something composed of elements of fantasy without sacrificing what makes a great film because at the end of the all my blustering that's what the Imagnarium Of Doctor Parnassus is.....a great, great film.

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