Just another sight youll see on the streets of Terry Gilliams London
Just another sight you'll see on the streets of Terry Gilliam's London

After the tempered enthusiasm I offered it last week, I’m delighted to report that Terry Gilliam’s latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, is the director’s best in ages.

This comes as something of a relief after his two previous misfires—the off-kilter The Brothers Grimm,  a film with some great set-pieces but little story and even less heart; and the squirm-inducing Tideland, which, if nothing else, at least proved conclusively that heroin addiction and parenting don’t mix.

I’d go so far as to say that Parnassus returns Gilliam to the heady heights of Twelve Monkeys and Brazil, his dystopian tales of parallel worlds that bear uncomfortable similarities to our own. Thematically, Parnassus doesn’t cast quite as wide a net as do those films — its world is that of modern-day London, albeit a London where horse-drawn caravans can still traverse the streets without drawing a second glance—but its fantasy sequences are as bold and beautiful as anything Gilliam has ever previously created.

The story (co-written by Gilliam with the critical assistance of Brazil collaborator Charles McKeown) is tightly focused and well grounded, while its conceit of a mirror ‘doorway’ (think C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe), capable of transporting characters into their imagination,s allows the director free rein to indulge himself in rich and mind-bending detail.

The cast is superb, with particular kudos to Christopher Plummer as the titular wise man, Lily Cole as his flame-haired daughter, and Tom Waits as dapper if Mephistophelean Mr. Nick. And should you still yearn for the days when Gilliam was a member of the Monty Python troupe, the film scratches that particular itch with a musical number featuring a chorus line of singing bobbies. In short, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a film I suspect I’ll be returning to with some frequency, and I’ll boldly suggest it will be recognized as an important film in the not too distant future. I encourage you to enjoy it this week at the Shattuck Cinemas.

On the repertory front, Pacific Film Archive continues their “Beyond ‘Capra-esque’” series at 2:00pm on Sunday January 24 with a very rare treat indeed. Early Capra in the Bay Area actually encompasses three silent films Capra worked on (but didn’t necessarily direct) in the 1920s, including The Visit of the Italian Cruiser Libia to San Francisco, Calif., November 6–29, 1921, a documentary that includes rare footage of everyday life in North Beach.

Also of note at PFA this week is (at 8:30pm on Saturday January 23) a screening of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, one of the most disturbing films ever made. Set in occupied Italy during the waning days of World War II, Salo leaves the so-called ‘torture porn’ films of the present day (Saw, Silent Hill, Turistas, et al) in the dust, so consider yourself warned. It’s being shown as part of the Archive’s aptly titled series, “Watching the Unwatchable: Films Confront Torture”, and PFA will be strictly enforcing an adults only policy at the door, so don’t even think about taking the kids.

John Seal is a regular Berkeleyside contributor. He writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movie’s Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Avatar photo

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...