It would be an understatement to say that I was excited by tonight's secret screening, the third of the festival, when it was revealed conclusively that we'd be seeing "The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus."

Although Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" is one of my two favorite films, it's been a while since I wholeheartedly adored one of his movies.  After talking to him this summer, it was obvious that he thought he'd done something special, and now that I've finally laid eyes on it myself, I would agree.

Working with co-writer Charles McKeown, Gilliam has crafted a simple, desperate little fable about the things we wish for, the things we fight for, and the things we are unable to change or control.  It's very much a "Terry Gilliam film" in a way we haven't seen since "Munchausen," and it's almost eerie how well the film serves as a thematic goodbye to Heath Ledger thematically in a way no one could have predicted.  It's a sad film, a film made by a filmmaker who is looking at the end of his career in the foreseeable future, and comparing this to his earlier fantasy films reveals some fascinating evolutions in his outlook as an artist.  Just on that level, I'd argue it's a significant entry in his filmography.

But beyond that, it's also an entertaining, imaginative effort that indicates that Gilliam can still summon magic when he's given the proper support.

That's always been the issue, hasn't it?  I've always wondered why you would hire Terry Gilliam and then fight him on every creative choice, and yet it's happened repeatedly.  Even on films where he's not actively being fought by his producers, he almost seems cursed.  Here, it feels like this is his film, for better or for worse, from start to finish.

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As the film begins, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is travelling with his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole, who was born the year I graduated high school, making me a complete monster, evidently) and a few cohorts who help them with a nightly show, designed to lead people to step into a mirror that evidently magnifies each person's imagination, reflecting it back onto them.  Why he's doing that is the film's central mystery, but the film takes such a low-key approach to solving that mystery that it's pretty obvious that isn't what concerns Gilliam the most.

As much as I think there's always been some element of biography in the dreamers who people Gilliam's films, Dr. Parnassus feels to me like the first time Terry Giliam has been the lead in a Terry Gilliam film.  He's a guy who is positively ancient by societal standards, and in the world of filmmaking, he's a relic.  His handmade aesthetic, his sense of pacing, his particular style of quirk... it all feels like it is resolutely, deliciously out of step with the modern mainstream.  And I have a feeling he loves it that way.  Like Parnassus, though, Gilliam can't resist taking on propositions that seem like they could easily destroy him.  Gilliam chases windmills, pursuing projects that seem impossible, while Parnassus keeps making wagers with the Devil, personified here by Tom Waits.  Those wagers seem to me to represent the artistic choices, the temptations that drive Terry to sign up again and again for these exercises in futility that either destroy him each time or that he just barely manages to conquer.  Looking at it from that angle, I wonder how much of the torture he goes through on his films really comes from the outside.  Could it just be that Terry thrives on this chaos?  Would he grow bored if the Devil ever stopped torturing him on film after film after film?  Is it part of what keeps him moving?

Heath Ledger doesn't appear on-camera for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, and when he makes his first appearance, he seems to be dead.  It's only after extraordinary efforts by Percy (Verne Troyer), the one person who seems to be as old and as powerful as Dr. Parnassus, that this stranger is brought back to life.  He has no memory of who he is or how he ended up hanged by the neck under a bridge, or why someone would want to do that to him.  He quickly adapts to the lifestyle of Parnassus and his show, and he begins to work the show, luring people into the Imaginarium with surprising ease.  Ledger's on the run from something, and as his secret comes into focus, as he begins to dip into the Imaginarium, it becomes appararent that the real thing he's afraid of is himself.  Tony's journey is the main narrative drive of the film, and Parnassus and his deal with the devil is more the landscape in which Tony's story plays out.

Ledger is allowed to turn on the charm as Tony as his true nature begins to re-assert itself.  Each trip into the Imaginarium reveals a different face, and this is where Gilliam had to get creative to deal with Ledger's untimely passing.  What amazed me is how it feels like an organic thematic decision and not a band-aid to a problem.  Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law all play refracted versions of Tony, and the way they capture his personality and his mannerisms is uncanny.  None of them do an impersonation, but they still manage to bring him back to life in a remarkable way.  It's quite telling that the first credit at the end of the film is "A Film By Heath Ledger and a bunch of friends," because it feels like so much of the film serves as a tribute to his particular charisma and his gifts as a performer.

Lily Cole, as the daughter whose soul is the marker in the ongoing wager between Parnassus and the Devil, makes a striking female lead.  She's got a soft, strange little-girl face and a lush, inviting grown-up body, which is perfect for the character she's playing.  She's a runway model, but she's got chops as an actor, and she has a really sweet chemistry with Andrew Garfield, who comes close to stealing the film as Anton, one of the players in Parnassus's show.  He's the one harboring the profound crush on Valentina that is brought to a head when Tony shows up.  Verne Troyer is great, too, playing a role that allows him to be caustic and angry and deeply odd.

One of the things that has always been a visual signature of Gilliam's work is the way all of his effects look handbuilt, so seeing him make a film that embraces CGI in as naked a way as this is sort of a shock to the system at first.  It frees his imagination up, but shooting a great CGI film is a skill set, and there are times where Terry's imagination and Terry's execution don't mesh flawlessly.  It's easy to blame the FX house, but I know that often, they are at the mercy of what the director shoots and what the director wants, and they do the best they can do under the circumstances.  It's almost like every time Terry cuts to a close-up in an FX scene, it doesn't work, and maybe that's just a deficiency in the process that he didn't understand and couldn't work around.  Whatever the case, it's a little distracting, but in the end, the imagination is persuasive enough that I can overlook the technical issues in favor of what's being imagined.

I don't think this is poised to be a huge breakout hit for Gilliam.  Even with Ledger's work here, it seems like it would be a hard sell for many people.  There's a great sense of melancholy to the whole thing, and the open-ended nature of the film's conclusion, suggesting that all of morality is just a game, played without resolution, is hardly the sort of big red bow people love to have on the end of their movies.  But for Gilliam fans or for anyone who likes fantasy that plays left-of-center, "The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus" turns out to be a film of many subtle pleasures as well as grand images, and a tidy summation of many of this director's long-explored themes and ideas.

"The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus" is set to open in limited release in the United States on December 25th, 2009.

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