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Terry Gilliam has been trying to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for nearly 30 years, including a 2000 effort starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort where cameras actually began to roll.

The plug got pulled on that production after Rochefort, cast as Quixote, turned up with a bad back, and flooding rained down upon Gilliam’s set with a vengeance that wrecked the landscape and washed his equipment away. Further efforts to film Quixote since then have been mired in lawsuits and insurance issues, with many cast members—including Ewan McGregor, Michael Palin and Robert Duvall—passing through. So it was with a little bit of shock that I found myself sitting down for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a finished film directed by Terry Gilliam, almost 20 years after the documentary Lost in La Mancha depicted the collapse of the Depp iteration.

As a Gilliam fan, it is with a heavy heart that I report the film is, not surprisingly, quite a mess, the result of too many revamps and adjustments over the years.

The problems are not with the performances. Adam Driver does an excellent job in the role initially intended for Depp as Toby, a frantic, disillusioned TV-commercial director who longs for the esoteric days of his not-too-distant filmmaking past (a character clearly modeled after Gilliam himself). Jonathan Pryce proves to be a perfect choice for Don Quixote—or rather a cobbler given an acting gig who goes so method in his approach that he believes he’s the real Quixote.

In the film, Toby seeks out the Pryce character in an effort to bolster a current, commercialized version of the Quixote story. In his travels, he confuses dreams with reality, finds himself being mistaken for Sancho Panza (Quixote’s dim sidekick), witnesses the exploitation of women in the workforce, and battles some fat giants.

The screenplay, co-written by Gilliam, ambitiously shoots for satire about our current political atmosphere and the state of filmmaking in general. Its plot-driving device—the blurring of reality and the dream world—flat-out fails. This is the first Gilliam film shot on digital video, and the visual richness that accompanied his previous films is nowhere to be found. Gilliam’s often-violent and harried style, accompanied by tight, claustrophobic visuals, must not translate to the video lens. Much of this movie is just a spastic, visual mess.

Because the dream world and the real world have no true visual distinction, Gilliam constantly has Toby pointing out whether he is in a dream or not. It’s left to the viewer to really figure out what is going on—and it just doesn’t work, especially in the film’s second half, where it all falls apart.

There are some inspired moments. The giants sequence, so memorably depicted in Lost in La Mancha as Gilliam’s big moment in the Quixote story, shows a flash of what the movie could’ve been. Granted, the movie he made today was done for two-thirds of the budget he had 20 years ago. Gilliam has expensive visual ambitions, and trying to convey those on shoestring budgets doesn’t work. Granted, big budgets are justified by public interest in a film, and interest probably isn’t too high for a blockbuster Quixote movie.

Gilliam’s career went on a severe downhill trajectory after the failure of the original Quixote. He has said in interviews that he just wanted this movie out of his system. Now that Quixote is finally on screens, perhaps it will vacate the cherished auteur’s mind and allow him to get on to better things. Movies like Tideland, The Brothers Grimm, The Zero Theorem and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are pale representations of what the man can do. Perhaps the director (still amazingly spry at the age of 78) can get back to the business of focused yet deliciously crazed movie-making.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

Man … Terry Gilliam looks awfully frightening in drag these days. I mean, he was frightening in a dress back in the late 1960s when Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted, but he’s at an all-new level of scary in this show.

You have to applaud the guy, and cohorts John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. They are all older than 70 now, but that didn’t stop them from doing one last round of shows at the O2 in London in July as a final gift to their fans; Monty Python Live (Mostly)—One Down and Five to Go is now available for home-viewing.

The title of the show refers to the fact they have lost one member of their troupe to death, Graham Chapman, who makes some appearances via film in this fun stage production. Age has slowed some of them a bit; a few lines get flubbed, and some of what used to be rapid-fire dialogue has become more conversational in speed. There’s a heavy reliance on lush musical numbers for classics like “Every Sperm Is Sacred” and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” There are also plenty of opportunities for the old geezers to take a break while films of classics like “Silly Olympics” and “The Fish Slapping Dance” play on the humongous big screen.

Thankfully, the show also contains plenty of sturdy re-enactments of classic sketches. Palin shines during “The Lumberjack Song” and “The Spanish Inquisition,” while Gilliam may have the most energy in the group (even if he does look the worst in a dress). Terry Jones and Cleese absolutely nail the “Crunchy Frog” routine. (“Our sales would plummet!”)

I wouldn’t recommend that a Python virgin start here, but if you are a longtime fan of their work, seeing the boys together for what could be one last time is a treat.

Monty Python Live (Mostly)—One Down and Five to Go is available for rent on iTunes ahead of its Blu-ray release on Nov. 11.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

In the latest from director Terry Gilliam, The Zero Theorem, Christoph Waltz plays a computer hacker “crunching entities” on a mission to prove that mankind essentially came from nothing—and will return to nothing.

I won’t say that Gilliam’s movie adds up to nothing in the end, but it becomes nonsensical, meandering mush after a promising, eye-catching beginning.

The movie has all of the watermarks of classic Gilliam films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The future is a claustrophobic place in which fluorescent colors replace the browns and grays of Brazil. There are also hoses and wires—lots and lots of hoses and wires.

There’s also another Big Brother-like corporation in the form of Mancom, for which Qohen Leth (Waltz) finds himself hopelessly employed. Forever sitting at a flashy computer console and manipulating numbers with what looks like a glorified PlayStation 4 controller, Qohen constantly complains to his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), that “we,” meaning he, is dying, and his work would be done better in the confines of his own, burned-out church home.

After a meeting with Management (Matt Damon in a funny white wig) at a party, Qohen’s wish is granted, and he’s allowed to work at home on the company’s Zero Theorem project—a project that has burned out many programmers before. As Qohen slowly goes crazy, he’s visited by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management’s son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), in some sort of strange effort by Management to distract him.

Of course, Qohen falls in love with Bainsley, who gives him a strange virtual suit that allows them to visit a beachfront virtual world where they can eat whatever they want—and make out, too.

The film’s settings—from the bombed out church co-inhabited by pigeons, to the multicolored streets where digital billboards follow people and converse with them as they walk by—give Gilliam a chance to play in his masterful visual sandbox. He’s still got it when it comes to presenting strange worlds, even if it is obvious that some of his visions are a few special-effects dollars short. (Gilliam doesn’t command the budgets he once did.)

What he doesn’t have is a script that amounts to much. The screenplay, by Pat Rushin (his first feature, according to IMDb), has grand ideas, but it cops out in the end—and this is a movie in which the end really, really matters. What happens is actually very reminiscent of Brazil’s dark ending—Gilliam’s original cut, that is, and not that “Happily Ever After” mess that aired on TV.

Waltz is good here, acting hard with a script that abandons him slowly. It’s a fully dedicated performance that deserved a better movie. Thewlis has funny moments; his repairman “field trip” to Qohen’s home is reminiscent of the visits paid to Jonathan Pryce by Robert De Niro in Brazil.

Yes, The Zero Theorem is one of those films in which a great director rips himself off shamelessly, and almost gets away with it. It’s Gilliam’s best film since Fear and Loathing Las Vegas, although that’s not saying much, seeing as the interim has included stuff like the awful Tideland and mediocre The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Gilliam is trying to mount The Man Who Killed Don Quixote yet again, and I’m hoping the project finally comes to fruition. Perhaps a chance to revisit this subject—something he is so passionate about—will allow him to put together another masterpiece. He’s due for another one, and I think he’s got it in him.

The Zero Theorem represents a great director starting to warm up again. It’s a miss, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Zero Theorem is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It also opens Friday, Sept. 19, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews