Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009)

Title: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Collin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Andrew Garfield, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer


When we watch a movie, most of the time we filter, interpret, and syphon it through the experiences we have lived through during the course of our own lives. We don't ever just "watch" a movie, we see it through our own lives. We give whatever meaning we want to the characters and situations we are watching, usually those meanings or interpretations are a mirror of ourselves. This is one of the main themes that Terry Gilliam's new film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus plays with. Our imaginations represent us. They are like a calling card to who we are inside. Heavy stuff, considering Gilliam usually gives a very light tone to most of his films. But its obvious that Terry Gilliam is a man who is not happy with the way things are being run in the world, he has always, through most of his body of work retained an anti-system mentality towards things. This hate towards "the system" can be seen through the frustration of his characters with the way things are established. In Brazil, the main character cant deal with the fact that his life is so redundant and boring, so he escapes to another world where he is a hero. In 12 Monkeys, the government is using Bruce Willis to investigate our past, but really, they don't know what the hell they are doing, or even if they are doing it right. In Gilliam's films, this hate for the way things are, this hatred for the reality of things is being fought not with swords or guns, but with our imaginations.

Started out kind of heavy there with my review. But this was the latest Terry Gilliam film, and I am a huge Gilliam fan. So just keep in mind, this review comes from someone who loves and admires Gilliam's films a great deal. I have always admired how Gilliam escapes to these fantastical wonderful worlds. In many ways, Gilliam escapes from reality through his films, but at the same time, since we are talking about art here, Gilliam addresses certain issues, he needs to express. Like any good director, Gilliam criticizes and satirizes society through his movies. And in my opinion, society and the way things are deserve it. Screw it, what can I say? I agree with the guy. Things are fucked up. Gilliam is saying through his films that things are so messed up, so depressing that we need to escape to another imaginary world to be alright. Isn't that what films are all about? The "great escape"? And what better way to escape, then with this new Terry Gilliam film? What can I say about The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus? Well, that its a Gilliam film through and through. This isn't Gilliam restrained by corporate douche bags like in The Brothers Grimm, nope this is Gilliam once again cutting loose, still trying to amaze and wow us, and still commenting on the world we live in. With a touch of insanity and zaniness for good measure.

The film is about a traveling theater group. These guys go around town doing their little show, presenting "The Great Dr. Parnassus". They offer you great and wondrous things but only if you walk through the mirror to see it. Thing is, Dr. Parnassus is going around collecting souls, once they enter his mirror, they re-emerge happy and full of life. With new energies to face the darkness of the world. You know, the same way movies do. Anyways, Dr. Parnassus played by Christopher Plummer is an aging man, who just so happens to be immortal. He sold his daughter to the devil for said immortality. The deal being that when she turned 16 she would immediately become The Devils property. Of course, now that his daughter Valentina is 16, Dr. Parnassus wants nothing to do with that deal and is looking for away to break with it. Oh by the way, the devil is played with exquisiteness by the one and only Tom Waits. So anyhow, Parnassus is on the run. He goes around doing his little show, living in poverty with his daughter and theater group. In comes Heath Ledgers character, Tony. A man trying to forget who he once was and escaping his reality as well. He joins the theater group and helps them run the circus. Will the devil get his due? Will Parnassus escape the clutches of the devil and retain his daughter? And will Tony ever remember who he once was?

Speaking of Heath Ledger, I thought that he was going to be in the film a lot less, but apparently, he had filmed a lot! He of course, did a great job of portraying the two faced main character, Tony. The liar who enters the theater groups life, by playing an amnesiac. I always admired Ledger for wanting to back up Terry Gilliam as a director. Its quite obvious Ledger connected wit Terry Gilliam's artistic genius and decided to participate in this film. Same reason I respect Johnny Depp for doing the same, for being on Gilliam's films as if saying "this guy is great! Come see his films!" Johnny Depp's participation on this film is brief, but much appreciated in my book. Same goes for Jude Law, who has one of the coolest scenes in the movie, where he is going up these extremely long ladders that reached all the way to the clouds. Collin Farell did the best of the three. Farell actually acted as if he was Heath Ledger. Of the three invited actors who were chosen to fill in the gaps that Ledgers unfortunate departure inflicted upon this film, Farell was the one who embodied Ledger the best. Right down to his mannerisms and facial gestures. Lily Cole as Valentina -Dr. Parnassus's daughter- was a great casting choice on Gilliam's part. She has a strange kind of beauty. Like Christina Ricci, but even more otherworldly. Its an odd kind of beauty, but fits quite perfectly in a movie like this one. Cole looks like she would fit quite well in any fantasy film that would feature fairies or elves. She sure wasn't hard to look at thats for sure.

Speaking about the films themes I can say that it addresses many. I for one really thought that Gilliam was talking a lot about being Terry Gilliam. An aging director, and old fantasist whom nobody cares about anymore. Gilliam sees himself as the aging Parnassus, trying to bring his creaky old theater and stories to the people for their enjoyment. He wants audiences to transport themselves into his mirror worlds. His films. I of course am not one of those who doesn't care for Gilliam's films, I love them and welcome each one like a gift from the fantasy movie gods. I have always given Terry Gilliam props for being such an escape artist. He really loves to dive deep into that world we call "imagination", often bringing back the biggest and fattest imaginary fish in the pond. On this film, every time we go into Dr. Parnassus's magic mirror, every trip is different. You see, the world you find inside the mirror will reflect your own imagination, the things you like, the things you fear. I thought it was a wonderful allegory for how films mirror society, and how we should see ourselves in them. The film tries to shows us how we can see what we need to change about ourselves and the world we live in through films. How films both entertain and enlighten us. I think it was a great idea for Gilliam to work with Charles McKeown on this films script. McKeown has been actively working on fantasy films for some years now. He was responsible for writing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Brazil, both two of Gilliam's best films. Knowing that the writer of Baron Munchausen wrote this film makes perfect sense because The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus has many things in common with Munchausen. But more on that later. This paring of two great fantasist in one film, rejoining forces once again was a match made in heaven.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a film that speaks about the whole process of making a film. Yes my friends, this is yet another film about making films. And it comes as no surprise that Gilliam should want to address this subject matter. After all, he has been making complex and artistic films through out his whole life. Why shouldn't he make a film that summarizes everything he has learned through out the course of his directorial career? So in essence, Parnassus, is Gilliam. He wants to entertain us with his magic theater show. But what happens? People just aren't that interested anymore. They want something hip, something new, something edgy. And Gilliam even addresses this as well. The keeping up with the technology and the audiences ever changing interests. What should we sacrifice for our art, and for the pleasing of the audience? Tony, the "liar" looked to me like he was the young producer trying to present Gilliam to a new generation of audiences. Trying to update Gilliam's style and true nature.

In this film, Gilliam takes a stab at using computer generated images once again, same as he did in The Brothers Grimm. Gilliam has always been an "old school" filmmaker. He prefers to use mate paintings and miniatures to conjure up his fantasy worlds. Its been interesting to see Gilliam accept and use the tools of modern filmmaking on his films. Gilliam, very reluctantly has begun using CGI on his films. My own personal take on things is, I prefer the old Gilliam, with his miniatures and his paintings. But such is the modern world of films, computers have taken over. Gilliam has realized this and has decided to adapt. In The Brothers Grimm (the only Terry Gilliam film I can honestly say I dont love) the CGI was a complete disaster in my book. It brought the movie down because it wasn't beautiful. It wasn't even good. The CGI imagery in that particular Gilliam flick didn't work for me. Dr. Parnassus is Gilliams second attempt at using this new tool to tell his tale. I have to say that I see a great improvement. We get to see Gilliam's giant brooding castles, reminiscent of those we saw on Time Bandits. But in some of the imaginary worlds, the computer animation isn't all that great. Its on and off, I wouldn't say the effects were perfect. They were pretty to look at, but sometimes not all that realistic. They go more into the cartoonish side of things. More like something Gilliam might have cooked up during his animation days with the Monty Python group, but hey, its not bad for the kind of film were in, where we are going deep into the imagination, where anything can happen.

Hey, look! And old fantasist, a little girl and a theater group! Is it Imaginarium? Nope, its The Adventures of Baron Munchausen!

The only criticism I have for the film, and its not really that big of a deal is that the film is very similar in plot and situations to Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Here are the similarities:

- The film centers around the theater group, the actors and what happens behind stage - This is something we see in many of Gilliam's films. The hassle and the franticness of the world behind the stage. It is featured most prominently in Baron Munchausen.

- The film is centered around a little girl as the main character - Again, something Gilliam loves to do. We saw it Tideland, Baron Munchausen and now in Dr. Parnassus.
- The little girl is always pushing the old man not to give up the fight - In Baron Munchausen, the little girl is always pushing Munchausen not to fall asleep, not to give up, to continue the fight, the journey till the very end. Same happens here with Dr. Parnassus and his daughter Valentine.

- The old fantasist tells a tale, and the audience is pulled into it with him

- An evil character dressed in black follows the main character around. In Munchausen it was death, in Parnassus it was Tom Waits as TheDevil.

Those Terry Gilliam fans out there will notice the similarities with that film. But, same as Tideland, this new Terry Gilliam film has a darker side to it. Theres not so much comedy to the film, its bleaker. Darker. Again, the film mirrors its artist, so Terry Gilliam is a dark soul, who doesn't want to let go of that childlike wonderment he gets from fantasy and the use of his imagination. But I miss that time when Gilliam would put a lot of humor into his fantasy tales. But I guess we all change, we seldom stay the same. We evolve, and more often then not, when we grow and learn about the way things really are, we become just a little darker and sadder inside. The world can be a dark place, with dark experiences, but it can also hold great beauty. it all depends on how you look at things.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The ultimate fantasist himself, Terry Gilliam taking a break in between scenes


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I'm not a huge admirer of Terry Gilliam; the only film of his I like is BRAZIL. I know he has endured many difficulties over the years in raising budgets and keeping producers on side, and on the evidence of this awful rubbish you can see why. Although I think this film is garbage, I enjoyed your review tremendously Franco :-)

Unknown said...

I am a massive Gilliam fan and your review basically conveyed exactly how I felt about this film. I loved it and really felt that it was a return to form for Gilliam. I really didn't care for TIDELAND all that much and actually didn't mind THE BROTHERS GRIMM, but let's face it, it was a compromised film. If you get a chance, Bob McCabe wrote a fascinating book about the making of this film that really gives a blow-by-blow account of what went down. It's a little slapdash in style but still an interesting read for any Gilliam fan.

As for PARNASSUS, I agree with you that Colin Farrell did the best of the three actors filling in for Heath Ledger. If memory serves, I also think he gets the most screen time of the 3, which might explain why. As a big fan of Gilliam, it is really frustrating that he has to hustle so much to get financing. He spends more time trying to get a project together than actually making movies! Much like Orson Welles back in the day. It's really a shame because the world could do with more Gilliam films.

Anyways, enough rambling. I really enjoyed your review. Nice to see some love for this film and for Gilliam!

Franco Macabro said...

As you probably gathered from the review, Im a huge Gilliam fan Shaun, he is one of my top directors. I just love how he's always been a champion of fantasy, and a hater of the proverbial "system".

Through his films, he always criticizes burocracy and governments, and comments on how they exist under the illusion that they can control everything, when in reality, its all pretty chaotic.

I respect the guy for always standing up for imagination, for the beauty of seeing ourselves in our art. And becoming a better person because of it. And for being such a warrior when it comes to making his films! Any other director would have given up by now, but he has kept making his films, gotta give the guy respect for that as well.

But aside from that, he is one of the few directors to truly dive into fantasy. I mean, Adv. of Baron Munchausen for example is one of the best fantasy films ever made! Dont know if you have seen it or not, but wow, I truly love that one. Same goes for TIME BANDITS, 12 MONKEYS and THE FISHER KING.

Glad you liked the review Shaun, thanks for commenting!

@J.D.: I read about the making of BROTHERS GRIMM, it wasnt an easy movie for Gilliam because of the Weinstein's wanting to control the film too much. He didnt have complete creative control.

Agree, its so sad to see a great director like Gilliam have to struggle to make a film! But thats why I love the guy, he's never given up, and I dont think he has lost it yet, I think theres still one awesome Gilliam movie in him: THE MAN WHO KILLED QUIXOTE! Cant wait to see how that one comes together. It will be a personal triumph for him if he ever gets that one done, especially when we consider the fiasco that it was when he tried to make it the first time.

I reviewed LOST IN LA MANCHA a while back, its such an amazing documentary. One rarely gets such an in depth view of the downfall of a production!

Im crossing my fingers!


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