With "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," director Terry Gilliam makes the sort of the picture he's been pumping out since 1998: borderline unendurable. Coming off his career-torching work with 2006's "Tideland," it's comforting to observe "Parnassus" assume a less abrasive attitude when it comes to specifying the pageantry of the subconscious. However, that doesn't mean Gilliam has dropped his defenses. "Parnassus" remains steadfastly tedious, noisy, and brashly incomprehensible, only cushioned from total disaster by Gilliam's sporadically comforting visual fetishes.
An immortal man who long ago tangled with the Devil (an aptly cast Tom Waits) and lost, Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is stuck with his traveling theater troupe, brought to life by trusted advisor Percy (Verne Troyer), performer Anton (Andrew Garfield), and his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole). Rolling across London, trying to entice the locals to pass through a magical mirror that permits access to the vastness of pure imagination, Parnassus finds special inspiration in the form of suicidal amnesiac Tony (Heath Ledger), who joins the show, quickly becoming its most prized member. When the Devil returns to collect on past debts, Parnassus fights to retain his force of goodness, while Tony finds fresh perspective on the other side of the mirror, where his appearance is altered (portrayed by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell), encouraging him to avoid the trouble he's created in the real world.
Terry Gilliam has a way of cinematic repetition that brings either staunch support or undeniable fatigue. It's been uncomfortable watching Gilliam bury his gifts in odious, shock value material over the last decade, reveling in toxic whimsy to suit his obsession as an iconoclastic filmmaker with lovable puckish habits. Gilliam is a mad genius, there's no doubt about that, but his taste in material has decimated his ability to properly modulate the purging of his subconscious, with "Tideland" a loathsome act of directorial suicide. I never thought I see him behind the camera again.
"Parnassus" isn't a return to form for Gilliam, but it represents a distinct pathway back to his former jovial self. A fantasy of the mind, the picture is a free-for-all odyssey of life and death, God and the Devil, real and unreal. It plays directly to Gilliam's tastes in cinema, and the affection for such grungy, cartwheeling interdimensional leaping is palpable throughout the entire film -- a sort of vague, depressive spin on "Time Bandits," only lacking Gilliam's impulsive youthful exuberance. Deploying his extravagant style of animation (summoned to life through a creative, Pythonesque CG design), Gilliam brings an uneven balance of fantasy and encrusted reality. It's a revolving door of tonality he's loved since he picked up a camera, but the years and studio beatdowns have bent his antenna. Gilliam has turned to chaos to solve his problems, and with material as undisciplined as "Parnassus," the noisy approach doesn't do him any favors.
The screenplay for "Parnassus" is epic, cheeky, and informed with a tattered Eastern religion fixation that plays into sequences of spiritual awakening and concepts of reincarnation. From the outside, it's a simple tale of the Devil and Parnassus gambling with the souls of humanity, but the moment the director begins to dig into the innards of the piece, "Parnassus" loses its focus, or perhaps lucid direction was impossible once Heath Ledger passed away during production. His absence is rather cleverly concealed by Depp, Law, and Farrell, who try to keep the spirit of Tony alive during surreal sequences inside the mirror-world. The facial change conceit is an obvious band-aid, but the cast does an affectionate job covering for the fallen star. However, the loss seems to muck with Gilliam's dramatic gears, and he relies on a rather strident, argumentative tone to flesh out his world, making for an uncomfortable, one-note pitch of tension. Perhaps Ledger's death tore the heart right out of the film, or maybe Gilliam just can't quit his addiction to discomfort. Though it promises something fanciful at times, "Parnassus" can be disappointingly moody. Overall, it's emotionally unavailable.
The AVC encoded image (1.85:1 aspect ratio) has much to process when dealing with the explosive interior of Gilliam's mind. It's a consistent presentation, with strong detail backing up the ornate design of the film. Facial features are in full view, along with a crisp feel for the sets and costumes, which are often more interesting to explore than the film itself. The plastic quality of the imaginarium sequences is potent on the BD, diluting some of the handmade work. Shadow detail isn't as strong as desired, swallowing of the visual information during low-light events. Skintones look fabulous, keeping to a tone of fancy and desperation.
The 5.1 DTS-MA mix is typical Gilliam, blending the frontal noises of dissatisfaction with the rich sensorial immersion of fantasy. Crisp and nuanced, the track is marvelous about keeping the worlds separated and contained, with a special feeling of atmosphere heading into the imaginarium, filling the surrounds with an enveloping sense of humor and magic. Dialogue exchanges are thin and clotted at times, but everything is discernable to a certain degree, while scoring cues are lush and pronounced. Portuguese and Spanish tracks are also available.
English, English SDH, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish subtitles are included.
The feature-length audio commentary from co-writer/director Terry Gilliam is, well, very Gilliamesque. A stream-of-consciousness speaker, Gilliam doesn't take a break for the duration of the movie, discussing his film in great detail to help viewers understand his intent, along with his triumphs and failures. Of course, there's much talk of Ledger and his death, with Gilliam describing how much of a creative partner the actor was, and how Depp, Law, and Farrell jumped into the picture when the future of the production was in doubt. Surprisingly, Gilliam spits some venom toward film critics, who he claims don't "get the film," but then proceeds to admit that certain mystical elements given prominent screen time have no meaning whatsoever. The point of "Imaginarium" is a dreamscape mentality, and this track is useful to understanding what the filmmaker was aiming for, along with a strange detailing of all the spooky occurrences that popped up during filming.
"Terry Gilliam Film Introduction" (2:57) provides a brief history of the movie, chatting up the joy and sorrow of the production.
"Deleted Scene" (4:25) is a rough cut (with unfinished CGI) of an early sequence within the imaginarium. It can be viewed with or without commentary from Gilliam.
"Behind the Mirror" (3:28) is a brief promotional featurette introducing viewers to the characters and tone of the movie.
"The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam" (6:32) interviews cast and crew about Gilliam and his generous creative process, with plenty of praise thrown into the conversation.
"Building the Monastery" (7:16) sits down with visual effects supervisor John Paul Docherty, who walks the viewer through one of the more complex visual designs of the film. We're talking layers of models, CGI, and sets going into one location.
"'The Drunk' Multi-Angle Progression Sequence" (2:12) permits the viewer an opportunity to watch the development of a single sequence, from storyboards to final cut. Fascinating stuff.
"Heath Ledger and Friends" (5:46) is a tribute piece, discussing how Ledger's death brought about a team effort to rise up and complete the film. The love soon morphs into technical challenges, and the quest to match the new footage to Ledger's work.
"Heath Ledger Wardrobe Test" (2:03) is an assortment of fittings, showcasing the actor's playfulness. It can be viewed with or without PIP commentary from Terry Gilliam.
"Interview with Heath Ledger" (3:09) is a radio interview with the actor from 2007, taken from the series "Beyond the Subtitles." Here, Ledger talks about his upcoming work on "Imaginarium."
"Doctor Parnassus Around the World" (6:00) follows cast and crew as they partake in premieres all over the globe. Unsurprisingly, Lily Cole is the one sent out to absorb most of the red carpet photos. Smartly played, Gilliam.
"Cast & Crew Presentation on Stage" (8:27) covers Gilliam and his idiosyncratic introductions before the commencement of the London premiere.
"The Artwork of Doctor Parnassus" (4:29) returns to Gilliam, who sits down at a table and displays his initial artwork, which fed the development of the picture.
And the Theatrical Trailer has been included.
Gilliam packs much into "Parnassus," steering the tale into a few baffling directions that alienate more than marvel, encouraging an overworked cast to further detach from their humanity to service the filmmaker's flourishes. I'm trying to cling to the positive here and praise Terry Gilliam for shedding his vile "Tideland" skin, pushing himself outside of his comfort zone and into a plot that encourages a sense of romanticism. Ultimately, Gilliam's itches overwhelm his aspirations, and while "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" has a few inspired moments of visual enchantment, it's bloodless creation, rigidly conforming to Gilliam standards I keep waiting for him to relax. His clenched career deserves a vacation.
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