Monday, January 11, 2010

Doctor Parnassus

Most people know the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus as Heath Ledger's last film. Forget that. Yes, Ledger is there in an important role but he isn't what makes the movie stand out. It's real claim to fame is that it is Terry Gilliam's return to the type of film-making he did in the 1980s. It is the first movie that he wrote and directed since The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988!) and his personal touch shows. Like a Tim Burton movie, there are a number of "Gilliam" images scattered throughout.

The movie is about a series of wagers between Doctor Parnassus, a former Buddhist monk, and Mr. Nick, the devil. Parnassus has a traveling show in which people go through a mirror and enter a world created by a combination of Parnassus's imagination and their own. While there, they are presented with a choice between salvation and perdition. Parnassus and Nick each try to influence the person's choice.

Over the centuries, Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and Nick (Tom Waits) have made wagers with various stakes. To confuse things, Nick doesn't always want to win. Sometimes he has his sights on a different prize and Parnassus is a means to an end. The result of one of these wagers is that Nick gets to claim Parnassus's daughter, Valentina, at her 16th birthday. As the days are counting down, a new person enters the show - a man they found hanging beneath a bridge. It turned out that he wasn't dead. He had swallowed a tube which kept his windpipe from being crushed. The man's name is Tony, played by Ledger along with Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell. He seems to offer salvation but he has his own dark secrets.

While the acting is good, the real star of the show are the visuals. Parnassus's traveling wagon unfolds into a fantastic stage with clockwork figures moving back and forth. Other times it has an seemingly unlimited number of doors and hiding places. The Imaginarium itself is ever-changing. Many of the visuals are reminiscent of Baron Muchausen. There is also a dance number by policemen in drag that reminds you that Gilliam started out in Monty Python.

If you liked Baron Munchausen, Brazil and Time Bandits then you will like Parnassus. If they left you confused then so will Parnassus.

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