Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/17/10.
One of the most beloved but controversial directors in cinema, Terry Gilliam is a director who is known for a broad vision that doesn't fit in with what Hollywood wants. Despite acclaimed features like Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, and 12 Monkeys that were moderate commercial hits. Gilliam would often have budget troubles which had been notorious for his 1988 flop The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Though his films would often have a devoted following of fans since his days working as a member of Monty Python, funds for his projects were not easy for him to get.
The 2000s however, would be a very rough decade for Gilliam. Production for his ambitious yet radical re-telling of Miguel de Cervantes' Man of La Mancha entitled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The project that starred Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort as Don Quixote was filled with lots of trouble as the $32.1 million film was officially scrapped in November 2000 as it was documented for the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha. 2003 was also a tough year for Gilliam as he worked on his next project The Brothers Grimm where he and Tony Grisoni couldn't get proper credit for their script re-write while Gilliam battled it out with Bob and Harvey Weinstein over who should shoot the film and final cut privileges.
The film was eventually released in the fall of 2005 after several delays to some mixed reviews and decent box offices. Gilliam also released another film that same year to film festivals with Tideland, a surreal adaptation of Mitch Cullin's novel that was widely panned by critics in its fall 2006 release. Yet, the film's DVD release wasn't well-received by Gilliam as his troubles to keep getting funding for projects were troubled. In late 2007, a new project by Gilliam was finally in the works which was considered another ambitious project about Gilliam's themes of imagination. Starring in the film was Heath Ledger who had previously worked with Gilliam in The Brothers Grimm. Things seem to go well until January 22, 2008 when the young actor died of an apparent overdose of prescription pills.
Ledger's death seemed to mark the end of another Gilliam project but the director didn't give up as he decided to keep the footage that he shot with Ledger. At the same time, the parts that Ledger didn't film would be filled by other actors. The project was finally finished in 2009 despite a lot of trouble as Gilliam dedicated the film to Ledger along with producer William Vince entitled The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.
Directed by Terry Gilliam with a script he co-wrote with collaborator Charles McKeown, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus tells the story of a traveling circus troupe leader who makes a deal with the Devil to live a thousand years. When the Devil comes to collect the deal by taking the doctor's daughter, the doctor makes a deal to save her by trying to obtain five souls with help from a mysterious outsider as they travel to different worlds inside the doctor's imagination machine. Playing the title character is Christopher Plummer while the outsider named Tony is played by Heath Ledger in his final performance as the film revels in Gilliam's themes of man versus reality. Also starring Lily Cole, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Andrew Garfield, Peter Stormare, and in the other roles of Tony, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a whimsical, entertaining, and spellbinding film from Terry Gilliam and company.
Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is in modern-day London with a traveling circus troupe trying to entertain people throughout the city. Yet, with help from his daughter Valentina, a young performer named Anton (Andrew Garfield), and a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer). The troupe tries to entertain people but would often be dismissed or heckled by people who seem uninterested. For the 1000-year old doctor, it's a struggle as the Devil (Tom Waits) is lurking around to collect on a deal that the doctor made many years back. The deal was that for any child the doctor has at the age of 16, the Devil must collect while the doctor would be granted immortality as he met the devil many years ago when the doctor was just a monk.
Then on one night while traveling through London, a shadow of a man being hanged under the bridge as he was saved. Waking up, the man whose name is Tony (Heath Ledger) has no idea who he is as the doctor reluctantly takes him in while Valentina falls for him much to Anton's dismay. Attempts to stage the show, while getting people inside the imaginarium mirror where people would go into the mind of Dr. Parnassus where their own imagination would enamor them, has unfortunately been troubled as the Devil makes a deal with the doctor to have five souls to believe in the imaginarium where if Dr. Parnassus succeeds, he could keep his daughter.
Anton hears what is going on as he tries to take a woman into the imaginarium but only to cause trouble. Tony has a new idea to revamp the entire stage on the day of Valentina's sixteenth birthday. There, Tony woos his way to get women inside where he would sport different faces inside as everything seems to go well until a group of Russian men would chase Tony inside the imaginarium. The Devil ends up collecting their souls while Anton would make a discover of Tony's true identity. With less than hours away before the Devil can collect his prize, Valentina learns what was all of this about with Tony deciding to make a desperate move to save her as the Devil is ready to make more trouble.
The film recalls a lot of Gilliam's themes of man vs. reality where the character of Dr. Parnassus is a man who likes to tell stories in order to entertain people. For the Devil, Dr. Parnassus' ability to get people's attention was something that he was intrigued by as he gave the doctor immortality to keep telling stories and entertain. Yet, immortality comes with a price where Parnassus wanted to experience things that humans want and often joining the doctor in this long journey is Percy, who is the film's conscience of sorts. Yet, the experience to love would only come at a price for the doctor as the film does become a battle between the desire of one's soul with the help of a few characters.
Terry Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown create a film that is about a man dealing with the harsh realities to entertain people and his own immortality where he faces changing times and the Devil lurking around to collect on a deal. Inside the imaginarium where the doctor hopes to get people inside where they can live a certain fantasy. The doctor's job is to make it happen though the Devil would appear to tempt people and collect their soul. The script is well-structured though at times, the story lags a bit in its pacing as Gilliam and McKeown does bring a lot of depth, humor, and drama to the story and the characters in the story. Notably Tony who carries a dark secret about who he is since he can't remember where inside the imaginarium. He takes on a different face and personality which would reveal the kind of person that he really is while the Tony in the real world has no clue and tries to hide it from himself. The script is overall fantastic in what Gilliam and McKeown created in terms of what its idea of imagination.
The direction of Gilliam is definitely superb as it revels in a grim world of reality with wondrous fantasy. Shot mostly in London with sets and visual effects pieces in Vancouver, Gilliam does create a film that sort of lives up to his grand, ambitious ideas where things are huge and everything seems unreal. The scenes where the Devil first meets Dr. Parnassus at a monk place is truly fascinating along with scenes in the desert and such. In London, there's a look that is very gritty where Gilliam doesn't go for a wide depth of field. It's mostly close-ups and location shots of where the characters are while inside the carriage where the imaginarium is stored, it's more intimate and at times, claustrophobic. The scenes inside the imaginarium are truly whimsical and fantastic as it plays up to Gilliam's strange mind and visual swirls that are reminiscent of his work with Monty Python. From the way Gilliam composes several effects shot to its comical tone, it is definitely a Gilliam film all the way as it is his most rewarding work since Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.
Gilliam's longtime cinematographer Nicola Pecorini does fantastic work with the film's stark, gritty visuals for the nighttime scenes in London along with the dazzling look of the imaginarium stage when it's revamp and inside a mall. The look for the scenes inside the imaginarium are colorful with bright lights and colors as Perconi's work is superb. Editor Mick Audsley does some very good work with the editing to maintain a certain rhythm and style along with smooth transitions for some of the film's dramatic and comical scenes. For the more intense, adventure-like sequences, the film is cut with a fast-paced rhythm as the editing is well-crafted.
Production Anastasia Masaro with set decorators Caroline Smith and Shane Vieau along with a couple of art directors plus Gilliam do a spectacular job with the film's set designs. From the carriage that carries the imaginarium stage to the stage itself where at first, it was a ragged stage that wasn't well put together until it was revamped into something classier. The look of the film in its set designs is phenomenal like a lot of the set works in Gilliam's films. Costume designer Monique Prudhomme is excellent for the ragged clothing that everyone wears when they're not performing to the more dazzle look that everyone else wears where at one point, Verne Troyer has to look like an African child for Tony's revamp of the imaginarium stage that can be seen as offensive but there's a humor to it that even the character knows that it's wrong.
The visual effects are truly amazing in its whimsical look from the candy world that Anton stumbles to the more romantic yet troubled look that Tony and Valentina venture through. Led by its team supervised by Richard Bain and John Paul Docherty, the look of the imaginarium along with the design of the monk structure that Dr. Parnassus was a part of, it's truly dazzling. The sound design of Andre Jacquemin is excellent for many of the film's adventure sequences along with the sound of the carriage and locations. The music score of Mychel and Jeff Danna is wonderful for its circus like tone with playful musical pieces along with lush orchestral pieces for the film's dramatic and adventure sequences with big, heavy arrangements on some of its darker elements. One of the most comical elements of the music involves a group of policemen wearing lingerie stockings and high heels as they sing a song that is truly silly but fun.
The casting by Irene Lamb and Maureen Webb is excellent with some notable appearances from Peter Stormare as a politician in a fantasy sequence plus Maggie Steed as a woman with a lot of Louis Viutton objects who goes inside the imaginarium, Paloma Faith as a woman who is wooed by Tony into the imaginarium but doesn't get there, and Richard Riddel as a drunk who heckles the troupe early in the film. Verne Troyer gives what is probably his best performance of his career as Percy, Dr. Parnassus' longtime traveling companion who is really the straight man of the film while making sure Dr. Parnassus isn't doing anything wrong as he is also the film's conscience of sorts. Tom Waits is great as the Devil but is known as Mr. Nick who is a charmer and a man that is willing to tempt Parnassus into playing games as Waits is just fun to watch throughout the film.
Andrew Garfield is really good as Anton, a performer who likes to do magic tricks and wow the crowd while struggling to maintain his feelings for Valentina until Tony comes in and intervenes. Lily Cole is also good as Valentina, Dr. Parnassus' daughter who yearns for a better life while trying to take care of her father as she also deals everything else around her including Tony. Christopher Plummer is great as the film's title character, a man tormented by his own immortality while struggling to keep things going while dealing with the devil as it is definitely a mesmerizing performance from the veteran actor.
Finally, there's Heath Ledger in his final performance as Tony and as far as final performances go. This is certainly a fitting bow though it doesn't top the brilliance of his penultimate role as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Ledger's performance is full of charm, wit, and humor as it clearly shows an actor who was seemingly having a good time and it's a shame that audiences will never get to see the likes of him ever again as it definitely a fantastic performance from the late, great actor. Helping Ledger in filling the role of Tony through imaginarium are Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell as they all do a fantastic job. Depp with his light-comic performance with a sense of wit. Law with his playful yet smarmy tone and Farrell with a greasy yet charming performance as they all embody part of Ledger's persona as the three actors do great work while it is great to note that they gave their earnings to Ledger's daughter Mathilda.
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a remarkable yet enjoyable film from Terry Gilliam and company featuring a fantastic final performance from Heath Ledger. Along with top-notch performances from Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, and Verne Troyer plus Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell filling in for Ledger. It's a film that shows that Terry Gilliam still has it when it comes to whimsical and ambitious ideas. While it may not rank with a lot of his great films like Brazil, The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and a couple of other films. It is certainly a film that is definitely his best in quite a long time after a decade of trouble. While mainstream audiences might enjoy the film for its entertaining factor and whimsical humor along with some star power. The film is a bit eccentric in some places but it's what happen when they see a Terry Gilliam film. In the end, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is an excellent film from Terry Gilliam along with a fond farewell from Heath Ledger.
Terry Gilliam Films: Jabberwocky - Time Bandits - Brazil - The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - The Fisher King - 12 Monkeys - Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas - The Brothers Grimm - Tideland - The Zero Theorem - The Auteurs #38: Terry Gilliam
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