Tag Archives: Wonder

CAPSULE: THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE (2018)

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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)

34. STALKER (1979)

“My dear, our world is hopelessly boring.  Therefore, there can be no telepathy, or apparitions, or flying saucers, nothing like that.  The world is ruled by cast-iron laws, and it’s insufferably boring.  Alas, those laws are never violated.  They don’t know how to be violated…. To live in the Middle Ages was interesting.  Every home had its house-spirit, and every church had its God.”–Writer, Stalker

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Aleksandr Kaidanovsky, , Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Freindlich

PLOT:  A mysterious phenomenon known as the Zone arises in a small, unnamed country.  The military sent soldiers in and the troops never returned; they cordon off the Zone with barbed wire and armed guards, but rumors persist within the populace that inside the Zone is a room that will grant the innermost wish of anyone who enters it.  A Stalker, a man capable of evading both the police and the traps formed by the Zone itself, leads a writer and a scientist into the Zone in search of the mystical room.

Still from Stalker (1979)

BACKGROUND:

  • For information on director Tarkovsky, see the background section of the entry for Nostalghia.
  • Stalker is very loosely based on a science fiction novel with a title translating to “Roadside Picnic” written by two brothers, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
  • After shooting the outdoor scenes for over a year on an experimental film stock, the entire footage was lost when the film laboratory improperly developed the negatives.  All the scenes had to be re-shot using a different Director of Photography.  Tarkovsky and Georgy Rerberg, the first cinematographer, had feuded on the set, and Rerberg deserted the project after the disaster with the negatives.
  • Tarkovsky, his wife and assistant director Larisa, and another crew member all died of lung cancer.  Vladimir Sharun, who worked in the sound department, believed that the deaths were related to toxic waste the crew breathed in while filming downstream from a chemical plant.  He reported that the river was filled with a floating white foam that also floated through the air and gave several crew members allergic reactions.  A shot of the floating foam, which looks like snow falling in spring or summer, can be seen in the film.
  • The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened seven years after the film was released.  The quarantined area around the disaster site is sometimes referred to by locals as “The Zone,” and guides who illegally and unwisely take tourists there as “Stalkers.”
  • A popular Russian video game named “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl” involves the player penetrating a “Zone” and evokes a similar visual sense as the movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Like most of Tarkovsky’s works, Stalker is a movie full of awe-inspiring visual poetry and splendor, making it hard to pick a single sequence.  One key scene that stands out is Stalker’s dream.  The film stock changes from color to sepia—but a very warm brown, almost golden—as the camera pans over a crystal clear stream.  A female voice whispers an apocalyptic verse and the mystical electronic flute theme plays as the camera roams over various objects lying under the water: abstract rock formations, tiles, springs, gears, a mirror clearly reflecting upside down trees, a gun, an Orthodox icon, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming in it.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Stalker is an ambiguous, but despairing, existential parable containing narrative non-sequiturs wrapped inside of strange and gorgeous visuals.


Scene from Stalker

COMMENTS: It’s not fair to the potential viewer unfamiliar with Tarkovsky to start a Continue reading 34. STALKER (1979)