Friday, October 9, 2009

Oh, Terry Gilliam

So there is a new Terry Gilliam movie slated to come out later this year (imdb says it's going to start showing in the US around Christmas) called the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. This movie is already getting some publicity (and it will probably get more closer to its release) due to the fact that the late Heath Ledger stars in it. Conveniently enough, his character like changes his appearance and was being played by a number of different actors anyway (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), so his untimely death didn't present an insurmountable obstacle for the film's production.

Now the trailer looks pretty cool, but I have very mixed feelings about seeing this film. My first (pretty random) thought is that its title reminds me an awful lot of that Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium movie. That was like this bad children's movie about an enchanted toy shop with Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman and Jason Bateman. I haven't watched it but Nicole has: she assures me it's total crap, but she also urges everyone to check out the very end where Natalie Portman is like magically bringing the toy shop back to life or something and she does this really dorky, goofy, unintentionally-hilarious dance.

My second reservation has to do with Terry Gilliam himself who is the movie's writer/director. Now I am speaking as someone who actually has DVDs of two of his movies at home (and it's not like I have a ton of DVDs), so I feel like that makes me a bigger fan of the Monty Python-turned- filmmaker than most, but I think we all have to come to terms with the fact that most of his movies suck. Let us discuss.


I will admit beforehand that I have not seen any of these movies all the way through, but I am not going to let that stop me from discussing them. My experience with most of them has gone like this: I'm bored one day and [bad Terry Gilliam movie] is on cable. I'm like, "oh this might be fun/cute/interesting to watch." About twenty minutes in I'm like "fuck this!" and change the channel. With most of these movies this has happened to me multiple times. I'd go so far as to say I really want to like these movies, but I just can't watch them. If this doesn't make a movie bad I don't know what does.

Time Bandits: this movie features little people and pirates and Michael Palin... going through time and robbing people in the past? I don't know. I want to say I vaguely remember this movie including some pretty juvenile humor and I am going to say this is a recurring element in Terry Gilliam's oeuvre.

Jabberwocky: I have even less of a clue about this one except to say that Micahel Palin is in it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: I've half-heartedly watched a bit more of this one than most of the movies on the list. The titular aristocrat is an old man who spins outlandish tales about his adventures which feature such characters as like "the fastest man in the world" and Venus, the goddess of love (played by Uma Thurman!). I want to say that Baron Munchausen is actually very typical of Terry Gilliam's movies: it has this sort of romantic, storybook fantasy feel, and yet rather than inspiring the childlike wonder it's clearly aiming for the whole affair is just kind of dusty (as in the movie features lots of dirt and dust) and dull and ultimately depressing.

The Fisher King: This movie stars Robin Williams -- so that's strike one right there. I always forget what this movie is about and am like "oh yeah fisher king, search for the holy grail -- gotcha." But actually the movie takes place in the present day (or, you know, c. 1990) and Robin Williams is a bum who in the end stumbles on the holy grail or turns out to be the fisher king or something. I feel like it's supposed to be "heart warming" which is also not atypical for Terry Gilliam movies. I always get this confused with another dreary Robin Williams film I've never watched all the way through where he's a holocaust survivor, but that's Jakob the Lair (which is apparently a remake of a German film -- who knew).

The Brothers Grimm: Matt Damon and Heath Ledger play a fictitious pair of brothers who share nothing but their name with the dudes who compiled fairytales and wrote about consonant shift, and they find themselves lost in a haunted woods with werewolves and witches and stuff. I haven't seen this one yet, but everyone who has seems to be saying "bad, bad, bad!" I have a suspicion that this is another "magical crapfest" a la Munchausen.


Brazil: This movie takes place in a dystopian society (think 1984) where people's lives are bogged down by bureaucracy, pollution, terrorist bombs and lots of tubes. The main character is a civil servant who keeps his nose down and ekes out a pretty soulless existence until one day he catches a glimpse of the attractive young woman from his recurring daydreams. She drags him into the terrorists' plot and wakes him up to the horrors being committed all around him. Robert DeNiro cameos as a renegade plumber and Katherine Helmond (Mona from Who's the Boss?) plays the protagonist's mother, a lady of leisure who is obsessed with looking younger and has friends high up in the government.

The world of Brazil has a one of a kind look and feel: the action takes place in a sprawling city with a quirky tube-based infrastructure (tubes transporting mail, water, electricity...) and many elements which hearken back to the early twentieth century like black and white TV sets. The gloomy, depressing fantasy element is also present in Brazil, but it is alleviated to some extent by black humor. There's lots of satire and also a few truly frightening moments. On the whole, I'd call this movie brilliant but flawed: the first half shows a lot of promise and successfully juggles the disparate tonal elements, but the last 30 minutes or so are kind of an unwatchable mess. Nevertheless, Brazil does stand up to repeat viewing. We'll discuss the movie's turbulent production history in part three.

Twelve Monkeys: I think 12 Monkeys beats out the others for the #1 spot. This movie was inspired by a French film called La Jetée, but that was just a 30 minute short composed of black and white stills so I give Gilliam full credit for the story. Bruce Willis stars as a man from a grim (gloomy fantasy) future where the human population has been decimated by a virus and survivors must live underground. The powers that be send him back in time with the mission of discovering the virus' origins (which seems to be tied to "the twelve monkeys" which they only known of through graffiti tags) and to stop its spread at all costs. In the present everyone thinks he's crazy and thus during a short stay at a mental facility he meets Brad Pitt's character, a genuine fruitcake who may be involved in the whole virus mess somehow.

Despite the sci-fi premise, 12 Monkeys is more grounded in reality than most Gilliam films, and here the dark fantasy elements have a pleasant City of the Lost Children feel to them (maybe its the Gallic source material or the eerie accordion music). Add to this a suspenseful plot with an ambiguous twist ending and you've got yourself a winner.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: Another brilliant but flawed film that gets better on repeat viewing. Johnny Depp plays the main character, Hunter S Thompson's fictionalized alter-ego, and an unrecognizable Benicio del Toro is his buddy/attorney who may or may not be Samoan. The two travel to Las Vegas mid-drug binge to report on a motorcycle race and end up staying at the same hotel as an anti-drug law enforcement convention. They have a bunch of crazy misadventures which end up being vaguely telling about life as a druggie egotist and what American society was like in 1971 (most of which still holds true today).

The fact that the main characters are high out of their minds for a lot of the movie does allow Gilliam to engage in some of his trademark surrealism, but for the most part its more psychedelic than fantastical. Like Brazil (and arguably even more so), Fear & Loathing includes a few shocking scenes that are hard to watch (um, the waitress at the diner). This is why I think repeat viewings tend to be more enjoyable: you know that stuff is coming and can enjoy the comedy and insanity more. Don't miss the part with Christina Ricci and since Halloween is coming up think about how cool a Raoul Duke costume would be!


If you've paid attention to Gilliam's career like I have, you've heard a lot about his problems getting his movies made. First, there's the Battle of Brazil, a whole book about Gilliam's struggle with Universal Pictures to get that movie released. Basically, the studio was so unhappy with the final movie that they didn't even want to distribute it, but then Gilliam managed to show it to some critics who were like this movie is great.

Now I gave Brazil a thumbs up, but I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I kind of see where the producers were coming from. I know! There were problems all along, but as far as the final product goes the first complaint was that they didn't like the title. I agree that "Brazil" is a stupid title for a movie that has nothing to do with the country in South America and is more George Orwell than Copacabana. The only connection is that the jazz tune "Brazil" based on "Aquarela do Brasil" plays throughout the movie.

Problem #2 was that they didn't like the ending -- specifically they wanted a happy ending. I've already called the last act of the film an unwatchable mess, and I will add that the closing scene is immensely depressing (and sort of chilling). I can see how the studio would not be happy with this. I don't know what could have been done to "fix" the ending, or if that would even be possible, but I kind of feel like at this point Gilliam threw his hands up and was like "no!" Yeah, tacking on a Hollywood happy ending would probably have been stupid, but you have to admit that Brazil's finale's got major problems.

Having said all this, I did call the movie "brilliant but flawed" so I do think the decision to let it rot rather than release it was a bad one. But, come on, this movie was always destined to -- at best -- be a cult favorite that got some critical acclaim. This movie was never going to achieve serious commercial success.

Then there's this documentary called Lost in La Mancha which is the boohoo story about how Terry Gilliam wanted to film a movie based on Don Quixote, but the project was killed because of his disagreements with the French producers and other assorted production problems. At this point, you gotta think "gee, is the problem the producers or is it Gilliam?" I think he's probably just a difficult person to work with -- a temperamental artist perhaps -- and that he probably refuses to compromise his vision. This is often laudable, but you have to ask yourself if Gilliam's finished products are good enough to justify this obstinacy. I'm saying that out of all his movies 1 was awesome, 2 were great but flawed, and the rest were blech.

And while we are at it there is no doubt in my mind that Don Quixote was going to be another romantic crapfest with dreary fantasy elements in the vein of Baron Munchausen. I mean can't you just see it? Actually, we may not have to speculate about this forever because it appears that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is back in "pre-production."


The same fears apply to the Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Like I said, the trailer looks cool, but it seems that Gilliam has ventured into dangerous territory (for him) and that we might have another one of his dreary fantasies on our hands. I am sure I will see it eventually, but my hopes are far from high.

Images: photos from movie Brazil found on verdoux blog.


nola32 said...

firstly, i have to say that 'mr magorium' WAS crap and that i DO think that everyone should watch it just for the end dance-thing scene which proves that natalie portman isn't the actor we hoped she would be.
now on to gilliam- i've actually seen 'time bandits'. it's actually an entertaining film about a young boy who goes on this crazy, time-traveling adventure with a bunch of little people. he does run into michael palin (i forget who he plays) but also robin hood (john cleese) and some other kind of hilarious characters. it's a funny fantasy film that's clearly low-budget but totally worth watching. i wouldn't say it's 'brilliant but flawed', i would simply say that it's an oddball film with cute moments.
i've also seen 'the fischer king'. i was actually made to watch it in an english lit class at tulane (yeah, don't ask me why my prof decided that film is the new literature, that's something that i still can't handle thinking about). it wasn't a bad film, robin williams actually manages to eek out a good performance (which he does do sometimes) and jeff bridges is really good in it. i would say that, along with 12 monkeys, it's the most mainstream of gilliam's films. it's considered by some to be brilliant, i wouldn't go that far but it was a good movie. i did like '12 monkeys', too, but i think that it borrowed from 'city of the lost children' a little more than i would like (not that i didn't like, 'city of the lost children', i just don't like people who so clearly jock other people's styles). i agree with you on just about every other point. i haven't seen any of the other films (although i'm curious to see 'lost in la mancha', the film he DID make about why he couldn't manage to make 'the man of la mancha'). i love 'brazil' but agree that i can see why some people wouldn't. i can also see why the studio wouldn't have wanted to put it out. i initially hated 'fear and loathing' but i have to say that that's more a me vs hunter s thompson thing than it is a terry gilliam thing. i didn't like the book (which i read before i saw the film) and it prejudiced me against the film. i watched it a while after the first time (on your insistence, if i recall correctly) and decided that i actually thought it was pretty good.
all in all i would say that terry gilliam is probably a pain in the ass director. i'm sure that he's a very difficult person to work with but who knows. i feel as if often the 'weirdness' elements in his films feel forced. it's as if they're bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre and that just doesn't work for me. i'm excited to see 'the imaginarium of dr parnasus' but i won't be shocked if it turns out to be rubbish. as it comes out here in about a week and gavs and i have plans to see it, i'll let you know.
i'd also like to add that it's probably coming out here earlier because the brits LOVE gilliam. a couple of years ago they gave him a lifetime achievement BAFTA. he makes a lot of his movies here and (maybe because of the whole python connection) people always show up to see his stuff when it's in the theater in britain. i can't explain why they're so in love with him over here but if i figure it out i'll let you know all about that, too.

Meeg said...

That's nice that they like him in britain. I've given Gilliam a lot of crap in this post but there are definitely a lot of worse directors to go out and support.

I feel like I have tried and failed to get into Time Bandits before (maybe because its like a python movie only less funny) but when writing the post I saw that Sean Connery plays Agamemnon so that kind of makes me want to try again.

My dislike of the fisher king probably has a lot to do with Robin Williams. Also movies about bums make me think of like that "With Honors" movie with Joe Pesci.

nola32 said...

yeah, i agree that there are way worse directors. he has done a lot of really cool stuff.
i was thinking about this last night after i left my comment-- maybe he's not really a hard director to work with because johnny depp has worked with him a bunch of times (or maybe johnny depp just has a tolerance for crazy directors-- i'm looking at tim burton and john waters here).

Mat Black said...

Dusty. That one word from your description perfectly fits how his movies feel. I'd add disappointment. I've never seen one of his movies that wasn't a disappointment. They all have 10 or 15 minutes of good stuff...unfortunately it's scattered thinly through about 90 more minutes of dusty disappointing boredom. Gilliam sucks.