Tag Archives: Terry Gilliam

CAPSULE: THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Joana Ribeiro, , Jordi Mollà

PLOT: Toby, a narcissistic ad man, discovers that the aging star of his student film has come to believe himself to be Don Quixote, and is enlisted as the knight-errant’s squire while on the run from the law.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When he chooses, Terry Gilliam can go full-bore weird, but also has a long-established (relatively) down-to-earth side to him. In this adaptation he’s worked on for a quarter of a century, he does tap into his ever-ready spigot of wonder, but Don Quixote‘s story and style is grounded in a humorous humanist tone.

COMMENTS: At the cross-section between exasperation and relief, you can find Terry Gilliams’ The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Anyone  familiar with his career knows that this movie, in the works in one way or another since at least 1989, has hung over Gilliams’ head like tantalizing, forbidden fruit. He felt compelled to admit as much with the note preceding the opening titles, “And now, after twenty-five years in the making…and unmaking…” His quest to make this movie was itself quixotic. Having gotten that obvious remark out of the way, I can move on with this review—much like Terry Gilliam can now move on with his artistic career.

Once an idealistic film student, Toby’s final student project was (wink, wink) an adaptation of Cervantes’ pre-modern-written, post-modern-toned classic, Don Quixote. Young Toby discovers his star, an old shoemaker “with an interesting face” named Javier Sanchez (Jonathan Pryce), while traveling through rural Spain. He also finds Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a young tavern keeper’s daughter who he promises can make it in show biz. Ten years later, Toby (Adam Driver), now a flippant, shallow, and highly sought after TV ad director, discovers that their small hometown is a quick ride from his film shoot. He rediscovers Javier, who is locked away in a trailer, trapped re-enacting his role of Don Quixote against a projected backdrop of student film footage. Javier believes the grown Toby to be his faithful squire Sancho come to free him, and the two go off on a picaresque romp through the countryside, encountering friend, foe, police, producers, a battered Angelica, and an evil Russian oligarch. Throughout the journey, Toby’s grip on reality increasingly blurs with the chivalric world of Javier’s imagination.

Woof, long-winded. Indeed, about two-thirds in, Don Quixote chides Sancho “Toby” Panza for not being able to keep up with the plot. This movie oozes plot, sidetracks, and everything you’re looking for in a Gilliam fun-time adventure. It tells a story he wants to tell, reveling in the barely-controlled chaos of his flights of fancy and allowing plenty of potshots at the money men who have done their level best to thwart him over the years. What bitterness there is, though, is well coated in humor, and the whole tone is one of joyful excess.

Having read “Don Quixote” a few years back (mostly while sobering up or hungover), little snatches of the story resurfaced in my memory during the many nods to the source material. It also occurred to me that Terry Gilliam was the ideal director to bring that novel to life. “Don Quixote,” the book, is cluttered, long-winded, meandering, bizarre—and a work of comic genius. Gilliams’ oeuvre is all of those things, too. Having lost two potential leading men (Jean Rochefort and ) trying to make this story and getting no younger himself, it’s a relief to know that Gilliam finally got his dream project assembled for the world to see; and a true joy to watch such a good movie made by one of cinema’s best story-tellers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s an uneven and unflinchingly weird movie… [Gilliam]’s He’s unafraid to dive into the shadows and root around for weird and wonderful surprises. There are gaudy set pieces and bizarre relationship dynamics and a tenuous divide between truth and falsity – all Gilliam hallmarks.”–Allen Adams, The Main Edge (contemporaneous)

363. MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

AKA The Meaning of Life

“The task I’ve been given seems absurd: to wait here on earth until I no longer exist.”–Ashleigh Brilliant

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , Terry Gilliam (“The Crimson Permanent Assurance” and animated sequences)

FEATURING: , , , Terry Jones, , Terry Gilliam

PLOT: An introductory short appended to the main feature describes a mutiny among older workers at an accountant firm. Then the feature begins as a tank of fish with human faces ponder the meaning of life. The movie promises to explain that mystery in a series of comic sketches beginning with birth and ending with death (and the afterlife).

Still from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1983)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Monty Python comedy troupe began its life in 1969 in the BBC TV show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” The show lasted three seasons, ending in 1974, after which the Pythons embarked on a series of three feature films, of which Meaning of Life was the last.
  • The Pythons refused to show distributor Universal Studios a script, instead providing a poem summarizing the film. Knowing the crew had a built-in audience, the studio approved the project.
  • Terry Gilliam’s segment, “The Crimson Permanent Assurance,” was originally supposed to be a sketch in the film, but it grew to such length that it was eventually included as a separate short film introducing the feature.
  • The Meaning of Life won the Grand Prix (a prize second only to the Palm d’Or) at Cannes.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Well, it’s obvious what the average person will remember most about this movie: that nauseating mountain of gluttony, Mr. Creosote, vomiting gallons of minestrone onto the waitstaff at a swanky French restaurant to make room for his evening meal (including one final “waffer-thin mint”). Due to our particular biases, however, we picked a shot from the “Find the Fish” sequence instead: an elephant in a tuxedo, a man with extended arms, and a punk transvestite with water faucets attached to his/her nipples.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Fishy Python chorus; nipple spout punk; Christmas in Heaven

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Monty Python were the pioneers of modern surreal comedy; without the groundwork they laid, there would be nothing to show on . Python is too important to weird culture to go unrecognized on a list like this, and The Meaning of Life is their weirdest big screen work, the equivalent of an R-rated “Flying Circus” episode with nudity, blasphemy, grossout humor, absurdity, and, of course, fish.


Original trailer for Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

COMMENTS: Their rambunctiously silly and absurd style of comedy Continue reading 363. MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

AKA 12 Monkeys

Must See

“I think we should try to avoid defining things precisely. Too many films are packaging the world too neatly for us, and I don’t think the world should be packaged neatly. But hidden things and unknowns… The more you can encourage that on the screen, the better for the mental state of the world.” –Terry Gilliam, “FilmScouts” interview

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Madeleine Stowe,

PLOT: The future is a grim world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus and the rest live underground. James Cole, a prisoner in this future, is recruited to travel back in time on a mission to discover the source of this virus and help his present time develop an antidote. Thanks to unforeseen mishaps and the shaky technology of time travel, his mission goes off track.

Still from Twelve Monkeys (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • This feature was inspired by La Jetee, ‘s 1962 experimental science fiction short film done almost entirely with black and white still photographs and narration. Terry Gilliam knew the structure of the film, but did not view it before making Twelve Monkeys (obviously, screenwriters David and Janet Peoples were intimately familiar with the earlier film). The core story of James Cole witnessing an execution while stuck in a time loop is the main element surviving from La Jetee. The virus, Brad Pitt’s character, and Madeline Stowe’s role are all the scriptwriters’ invention, as well as an updating and cultural shift to an American setting.
  • One scene that does survive from La Jetee is a character tracing the timeline of their existence on a cross-cut tree stump. Gilliam makes a double-homage by showing the scene from Vertigo during a convenient film marathon showing at the theater where Willis and Stowe hide out.
  • Gilliam cites a trip to the dentists’ office, with its multiple layers of protection for everything to keep it sterile, as inspiration for the protective gear—including the “body condom”—Bruce Willis wears in his trips to the world’s surface.
  • Brad Pitt had never played an unhinged lunatic before Twelve Monkeys; Gilliam was excited at the prospect of casting him against type. Later, Pitt would become known for his manic portrayals in films such as 1999’s Fight Club.
  • On-set rumor has it that Gilliam got Pitt to be a more convincing crazy person by confiscating his cigarettes during filming; Pitt was acting while experiencing nicotine fits.
  • There are TV screens present at some point or another in nearly every scene of the film; Gilliam’s intended to show us as dehumanized by media. Gilliam firmly asserts his place in the cyberpunk genre with the quote: “I’ve always had a problem with the belief that technology was going to solve all of our problems.” Twelve Monkeys continues this theme from 1985’s Brazil.
  • Twelve Monkeys received two Oscar nominations: Pitt for Best Supporting Actor and Julie Weiss for Costume Deign. It won neither.
  • The SyFy Channel original series 12 Monkeys is a spinoff of this movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Insert the obligatory lament that there are so many indelible scenes that it’s hard to pick one. We’ll go with the giant “video ball,” a metal sphere festooned with lenses and video screens, which is always hovering in front of James Cole as the scientists interrogate him in between time hops. It’s a signature of the film’s “complex style over function” motif and the most sure moment where you can walk into the film cold and still say “Aha, this must be a Terry Gilliam movie!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS:  “Mentally divergent” Cassandra Complex; tooth surgery;  giraffes galloping down the freeway

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Besides Terry Gilliam’s trademark rococco visuals, off-the-wall plotting, and larger-than-life characters, Twelve Monkeys has something else that sets it apart from other time travel movies: it is completely without plot holes, and even without paradoxes except that of the stable time loop which gives us the story. Upon first viewing, the story seems to be chaos. Repeat viewings are necessary to assemble a clear story out of the puzzle pieces, every single one of which fits perfectly down to the tiniest details. It’s such a flawless whole when fully mapped that constructing it was a cerebral feat on the order of Fields-medal mathematics.

Original trailer for Twelve Monkeys

COMMENTS: Warning: this review contains spoilers.

Make no mistake: Twelve Monkeys is a very clear, coherent narrative. You just need a wall of pushpin charts, a ball of yarn to connect all Continue reading 344. TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)

CAPSULE: JABBERWOCKY (1977)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Deborah Fallender, Max Wall, John LeMesurier, Harry Corbett

PLOT: Disowned by his father, young Dennis Cooper travels to the big city; through circumstances circuitous and deeds unintentional, he saves the kingdom from the monstrous Jabberwocky.

Still from Jabberwocky (1977)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Long-time stalwart of the strange Terry Gilliam was just getting on his own feet with this, his first solo outing as a director. That said, there are a number of oddball moments, characters, and set-pieces; however, Jabberwocky is more on the straightforward side of things—with spikes of silliness—-than it is an Out-of-Left-Field-Terry-What-Are-You-Doing? spectacular.

COMMENTS: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” In the case of Dennis, the mind-blowingly unlikely hero of Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky, “greatness” clings like a limpet to the rotting potato our hero carries religiously throughout the movie. After an unpleasant experience co-directing with ‘s for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam seems to enjoy his newfound freedom to chaotically putter through a movie that, although occasionally uneven, brims with life in every scene.

A menace lurks in the forests and farmlands, viciously devouring victims before spitting out their skeletal corpses. What brave hero will save the good folk of the kingdom? Why, none other than Dennis (Michael Palin), a bewildered little man obsessed with stock-taking and other trappings of commerce. When his father, a venerable craftsman, casts him from his home, Dennis travels to the capital city to find his fortune so that he might be worthy of the hand of the piggish and unseemly daughter of Mr. Fishfinger, a seller of fish (!) who is, along with the merchants and clergy of the besieged city, keen to see that the rampaging monster keeps the swarms of peasants captured in its walls. Dennis woos the kingdom’s dotty princess (Deborah Fallender), pursues the fearsome Jabberwocky, and reluctantly endures a happy ending.

Not quite modulating his animator sensibilities, Terry Gilliam effectively makes a long-form, live-action version of the cartoons that brought him fame with the Python comedy troupe. The grittiness of medieval life is on full and absurd display as Dennis has run-ins with fanatical penitents, encounters a smilingly self-dismembering beggar, and is ushered around the chaotic city milieu by the director’s smirking machinations. Standing out amongst this cartoonery is a scene where a hungry Dennis pursues a rogue turnip first dropped by a merchant, then batted about by a series of passersby. Jabberwocky bears witness to the silly side of the Dark Ages’ dirtiness. (Indeed, one’s suspicion of ‘toonish buffoonery is confirmed by Terry Gilliam in the movie’s commentary).

No, Jabberwocky isn’t terribly weird. There is too much of a smiling sensibility lying atop, below, and at the surface for any disorientation. And no, Jabberwocky is no landmark directorial debut, but more a qualifying lap for Gilliam’s subsequent projects. A cast of characters who knows no other life and comically shrugs off all adversity undercut the despair of starvation and filth. The end result feels like “Tom & Jerry’s” Hard to be a God. Gilliam would go on to make weird and wonderful movies where his hero’s unlimited humanity blasts through a wall of farcical nihilism; with Jabberwocky, we still see a giggles-take-all attitude from the legendary filmmaker.

DVD INFO: Criterion provides, again, pleasant run-of-the-mill thoroughness. Lifting the charming commentary from the previous 2001 DVD release, they add a contemporary interview-documentary involving Gilliam, Palin, and others (all of whom, separately, go on pleasant tangents about the symbolism of potatoes), as well as a more in-depth bit with the film’s beastie designer, Valerie Charlton. Toss in a few odds-and-ends like the (bizarre) trailer, an audio interview from the late ’90s with  cinematographer Terry Bedford, and the obligatory fold-out essay in the disc case and you’ve got yourself a special release. And, oh yeah, the glorious images of this glorious movie have been upgraded and cleaned up for glorious “4K Blu-ray”. Huttah.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Gilliam’s monster, when we finally see it, is so hideous a thing that we can only be grateful this film is played for laughs. It still offers some genuine chills, together with a jarring sense of otherness that has become a feature of his work, a perfect complement to Lewis Carrol’s surreal poetry.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film

CAPSULE: THE FISHER KING (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer

PLOT: A guilt-ridden ex-shock jock discovers he has a tragic connection to a homeless man who believes himself to be a knight questing for the Holy Grail.

Still from The Fisher King (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although it has a couple of transcendent moments of magical Arthurian fantasy. As weird titan Terry Gilliam’s most popular and commercial (non-Python) film, it is an important touchstone in weird movie history, however.

COMMENTS: Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King starts out strong, as a karmic drama about creep disc jockey Jack hoist on his own petard of media cynicism. When Robin Williams appears as the junkyard knight Parry, attacking a pair of punks with a garbage can lid and the power of song, it briefly becomes a wacky comedy; then develops into a redemption fable as the relationship between Jack and Parry deepens. Magical realism appears in Parry’s Arthurian hallucinations of fiery knights riding through the streets of New York. These multiple tones actually mesh surprisingly well, until the tale goes errant into the Realms of Rom-com, from whence no sane plot emerges unscathed. It concludes with a happy ending that feels very un-Gilliam; the story requires a happy ending, but this one is too pat, too Hollywood. Maybe it’s all over the map, or maybe The Fisher King just has something for everyone; high drama and mythological touchstones for the art house crowd, comedy and sentimentality for the masses.

Plot and style aside, The Fisher King is an actor’s showcase, anchored not by headliner Robin Williams, but by the excellent Jeff Bridges as a self-centered Jack (a character who inevitably evokes Howard Stern). Bridges is slick and unlovable, admired by the public only for his outrageous cruelty. But because he suffers, and because his guilt is enormous and comes from a core that has not yet been drowned in the oily cynicism that engulfs the rest of the character, we root for him to reform. Williams, of course, is the Fool. Under Gilliam’s direction, he’s restrained so that his berserk improvisatory tendencies never overshadow the story and turn it into a Robin Williams vehicle. The comic still gets plenty of moments, both manic (a nude moonlight dance in Central Park) and mawkish (his romantic stoop speech to Lydia, in which he essentially confesses to being a stalker). Mercedes Ruehl is wonderful as Jack’s long-suffering girlfriend, a typical New York Jewish/Italian mutt in trampy miniskirts. This character, who has attached herself to a down-and-out ex-celebrity, could easily have come across as needy and pathetic, but instead she is strong, sexy and noble. She justifiably won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Of the four major characters, only Plummer disappoints, slightly, and that can be blamed on the screenplay rather than her thesping. Her super-quirky, clumsy love interest role is simply unnecessary, a distraction from the film’s important relationships between Bridges and Williams and Bridges and Ruehl.

Standout moments include the Red Knight rampaging through Central Park, a massive waltz in Grand Central Station, and in a cameo as a “moral traffic light.” Curiously, one of the stylistic inspirations for the film is the Hollywood musical. Williams breaks into show tunes throughout, a fellow homeless man dresses up like Gypsy Rose Lee and does an Ethel Merman song-and-dance number, and the words “the end” even appear in the sky above Manhattan lit up like a Broadway marquee. Though not a musical, that spirit of light fantasy bubbles through the movie, leavening some of the themes of mass murder, alcoholic despondency, and homelessness. Even though The Fisher King has a strong sense of purpose, stylistically it’s more than a bit shaggy around the edges. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a film featuring a madman, and perhaps that makes it more lovable in the end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…a wild, vital stew of a movie… veers with great assurance from wild comedy to feverish fantasy, robust romanticism and tough realism–with only an occasional stumble.”–David Ansen, Newsweek (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , , , Terry Jones, , Terry Gilliam, Carol Cleveland

PLOT: King Arthur, along with Sir Lancelot the Brave, Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-as-Sir-Lancelot, Sir Galahad the Pure, Sir Bedevere the Wise, and Arthur’s squire, Patsy, set out to find the Holy Grail, meeting the Black Knight, a killer rabbit, and the knights who say “Ni!” along the way.

Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While most of ‘s work flirts with surreal fantasy, this film simply doesn’t plunge as deeply into the genre as most of the other movies directed or co-directed by Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys, Brazil, The Brothers Grimm).

COMMENTS: As someone who has seen every episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (and “Fawlty Towers”), as well as all four of the “Python” feature films, it pains me to say this, but—this picture simply isn’t all that funny. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (along with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) seems like it would have been more effective as a half-hour episode of “Python”, but, stretched out to feature-length, the seams really start to show. This production has so many indelible moments—“It’s only a flesh wound!”; coconuts used in lieu of the sound of horse’s hooves; “Bring out yer dead!”; etc., etc. etc.—that it seems churlish to say that it doesn’t hang together very well. It sounds like a ridiculous argument, like complaining that the films of Mel Brooks need more plot, but Holy Grail is only hilarious in fits and starts. Some of the funniest bits are the most subtle (“Someday, all this will be yours.” “What, the curtains?”) Otherwise, there is a surprising amount of dead air in this somewhat murky-looking film (it was shot on a very low-budget), which nevertheless has been acclaimed as a deathless classic by generations of nerds. By now, the movie is so immortal that it has been adapted into the hugely successful Broadway musical “Spamalot”, produced by the late Mike Nichols. But the film itself still seems like a huge pile of hit-and-miss gags that don’t actually add up to a real movie. And it is only weird in the way that all Python is weird; the fourth wall is broken repeatedly, but  was doing that 40 years before Python.

The Holy Grail isn’t strange enough to make the List. However, even this nutty farce is a far better exploration of Arthurian myth than the awful film version of Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot (which Chapman’s Arthur dismisses as “a silly place”) or Walt Disney’s exceedingly mediocre animated film The Sword in the Stone.

Because of the eternal popularity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it has been released and re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray a seemingly endless number of times. Some of the behind-the-scenes-stories (in the DVD Extras), like the one about how Chapman’s alcoholism was totally out of control on the set, are perhaps more interesting than the film itself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Some inspired lunacy—and a lot of dry stretches; awfully bloody, too.”–Leonard Maltin, “Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide: The Modern Era”

“The Python team’s surreal take on the legend of Camelot bursts with inspired lunacy.”–Jamie Graham, Total Film (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE ZERO THEOREM (2013)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Mélanie Thierry, , Lucas Hedges, , Matt Damon

PLOT: Qohen Leth (Waltz) is a gifted but troubled programmer (or “cruncher” as they are referred to in the film) who is assigned a seemingly impossible task: to calculate the “Zero Theorem” and thus prove the lack of meaning in anything. The only problem is, Qohen is convinced that there is meaning to everything, and that it’s just a matter of time before he finds out what it is.

Still from The Zero Theorem (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Gilliam alleges that The Zero Theorem is a tragedy and that has fared poorly with critics due to assumptions that it is supposed to be a comedy. But the honest-to-God tragedy is Gilliam’s decision to essentially rehash one of his finest films (Brazil) with a more contemporary slant regarding technology and our current sense of isolation. This is a film that has plenty of fine moments, and it’s something of a must see for all the weird fans out there, but it’s a footnote in Gilliam’s cinematic career that puts more pressure on the now 73 year-old auteur to complete the long gestating “Don Quixote” project that has dragged him through Hell (and Spain) and back over the last two decades.

COMMENTS: For all the Gilliam aficionados out there, please don’t despair! The Zero Theorem is lots of fun, and demonstrates just what a criminally overlooked talent Gilliam is behind the camera. The movie looks superb, especially given its extremely modest budget, and many of its imaginative flourishes are a joy to behold. A film needs to be more than just the sum of its parts in order to truly succeed, however, and The Zero Theorem cannot escape the shadow of its far superior filmic sibling Brazil in terms of quality and vision.

The two movies are simply too thematically similar in terms of subject and presentation, and particularly in terms of David Thewlis’ performance which directly channels ‘s turn as the terrifying Jack Lint. The update of modern society is viewed through Gilliam’s eye: the blaring in-your-face nature of technology and the personal detachment it encourages. All this is all well and good, but this is all ground that is well-trod, and in better boots, by the earlier and superior film. Zero Theorem is simply too derivative of his past work to have any lasting merit.

Perhaps the biggest saving grace of the film is the performances of the main cast. Mélanie Thierry’s eccentric allure is charming and garish at the same time, and Lucas Hedges gives a star turn as the teenage genius Bob, a role he leaps into with such abandon that he is surely an actor to watch out for in the future. Let’s just hope that Gilliam pulls one last truly great masterwork out of his thoughtbox before he dies, as this minor film would be an unworthy epitaph for such a great director.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s weird and there’s Terry Gilliam weird, and his latest exploration into the fleeting nature of humanity, The Zero Theorem, may as well have been watermarked with his name… weirdly enjoyable”–Blake Howard, Graffiti with Punctuation (contemporaneous)