The Man Who Killed Don Quixote


An iconic figure, his faithful manservant and Terry Gilliam’s 25-year-odyssey.

(2018) Adventure (Screen Media) Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Joana Ribeiro, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Jordi Mollá, Óscar Jaenada, Jason Watkins, Paloma Bloyd, Hovik Keuchkerian, Matilde Fluixa, Joe Manjón, Antonio Gil, Rodrigo Poison, Sergi López, Rossy de Palma, Bruno Schiappa, Hipolito Boro, Jorge Calvo, Will Keen, Viveka Rytzner. Directed by Terry Gilliam

 

Few films have as checkered a past as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Visionary director and ex-Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam has been trying to get this film made since 1989. Unable to secure financing until 1998, he began filming only to have the production shut down after only a week following health problems for star Jean Rochefort’s health issues, a devastating flood which swept away nearly all the production’s equipment and assorted financial issues. Since then Gilliam has been continuing to get production restarted, adding some fairly big name actors to the cast but ultimately was unable to secure financing until 2017 when cameras finally rolled once again. Incredibly, production was eventually completed.

Now we see the finished product and was it worth 25 years of Gilliam’s life? Well, I suppose you’d have to ask him that. The story involved a jaded Hollywood commercial director named Toby (Driver) who as a student filmmaker commandeered a Spanish village and made a black and white film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, transforming Javier (Pryce), an ordinary cobbler into believing he was actually Don Quixote, and Angelica (Ribeiro), a 15-year-old waitress into thinking she could be a star. The villagers, needless to say, don’t remember Toby fondly.

When Toby returns to the village of Los Suenos (“The Dreams”) years later while filming an insurance company commercial involving the Man of La Mancha, he is brought face to face with the results of his student film. The now-mad Javier mistakes Toby for Sancho Panza and off they go into the Spanish countryside where Toby nearly burns the village down, is arrested by the local constabulary, watches Don Quixote tilt at windmills and ends up at a lavish party thrown by a Russian Oligarch (Mollá) who now “owns” Angelica and assisted by Toby’s boss (Skarsgård) and his oversexed wife Jacqui (Kurylenko). Can Toby find a way back to reality through the cobbler’s madness or will he eventually get sucked in, Javier’s vision preferable to the real world?

This is not an easy movie to analyze; there are a ton of things going on and many layers to unravel. Toby could be considered a young Terry Gilliam, a bright and inventive creative mind worn down by dealing with the machine of commercial filmmaking. Quixote is the ideal he is striving to achieve. Or he can be construed as purity while Toby is the corrupted but not irretrievable. Quixote longs to re-create the Age of Chivalry; a return to an idealized past maybe? While Toby is the strictures of the present. I could go on and on…and already have.

There is a lot to think about here which is never a bad thing in a movie. My beef with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is that it needed more Terry Gilliam; this feels stripped down and less imaginative than his other efforts. I think this would have benefited from a much larger budget to give Gilliam’s imagination full flower and perhaps that is why it has taken so long to make this; unless it’s a superhero film or a science fiction epic, Hollywood is loathe to give those mega-budgets out to just anyone, particularly to people like Gilliam whose movies don’t always make money.

Pryce is delightful as Quixote; his madness is at least sweet and essentially harmless unless he perceives you to be non-chivalrous. In that case things could get testy. Driver is a versatile actor who can do just about any kind of character; Toby is essentially a self-absorbed twerp who at any given moment thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. Beyond the student film, we don’t get a whole lot of background on Toby and the movie might have benefited from connecting the dots between student filmmaker to jaded commercial filmmaker. The mostly European cast does solid work throughout the film. There aren’t a lot of dazzling special effects shots here and the film could have used them.

Maybe I expected more from the film since it took so long to make it to the screen, and because Gilliam is such a visually arresting filmmaker. I get the sense that this isn’t the film he wanted to make but it was the film he could afford to make. Perhaps that’s true of most filmmakers.

REASONS TO SEE: Like any Terry Gilliam movie, this is chock full of imagination. Skewers the film industry with a rapier wit.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie could have used a little more whimsy.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some profanity, sexuality, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Since 1989, Gilliam has made numerous attempts to get this film off the ground, most notably in 2000 when it became “the most cursed film in history” as documented by Lost in La Mancha. Over the years Gilliam has cast a number of actors as Quixote besides Pryce; Michael Palin, John Hurt, Jean Rochefort and Robert Duvall, two of whom have since passed away.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy

Mao’s Last Dancer


It's a cultural phenomenon.

It’s a cultural phenomenon.

(2009) Biographical Drama (ATO) Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Chris Kirby, Suzie Steen, Madeleine Eastoe, Aden Young, Wen Bin Huang, Shu Guang Liang, Ye Wang, Neng Neng Zhiang, Wan Shi Xu, Shao Wei Yi, Jack Thompson, Nicholas Hammond, Hui Cong Zhan, Chengwu Guo. Directed by Bruce Beresford

Talent transcends politics. Hard work trumps propaganda. With the Winter Olympics of 2014 firmly underway we are treated to some of the finest athletes in the world doing their things which brings to mind the similarity between athletes and artists. The discipline it takes to attain the highest level of both can only be generated from within; what happens without is almost irrelevant.

Li Cunxin (Cao) is a young Chinese peasant boy (Huang) taken seemingly at random from an impoverished village to study dance during the Maoist era. He is brought to the Beijing Dance Academy where he is taught ballet techniques through brutal discipline and as a teen (Guo) becomes one of the leading lights at the studio.

Having performed to the highest standards in Beijing, he is sent on a student visa to the United States to dance with the Houston Ballet. Mainly a propaganda move to show Western audiences the superiority of Chinese techniques and dancers, the Ballet’s artistic director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood) is impressed by what he sees and the potential Li possesses.

Li himself is confused by the strange new world around him; it is much different than what the communist propagandists in China led him to believe it would be. For the first time he begins to doubt the wisdom of those who have been in charge of his life. He has found freedom and he is both amazed and overjoyed with it, but also a little bit afraid. To make matters “worse,” he has fallen in love with Elizabeth (Schull), a fellow dancer.

Ben, convinced his future is better in the West, implants the seed in Li’s head that leads to a seedling; when his three month visa is up, he determines to stay in the United States. Before he can be granted asylum, the Chinese government takes the extraordinary step of kidnapping him and imprisoning him in their consulate. Ben and Elizabeth hire lawyer Charles Foster (MacLachlan) to secure his release and have him stay where his heart lies.

Eventually, they succeed and Li is allowed to stay in America but Li knows the cost to his family will be high. The guilt of his act hangs over him and begins to affect his dancing. Will following his heart be worth the price he – and those he loves both in China and the United States – must pay?

Aussie director Beresford, best known for his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, takes a very low-key approach to the movie in terms of filmmaking (the story is another matter). The camera angles are fairly standard – Beresford is not out to prove anything about what an innovative director he is – and there is almost no computer assisted trickery. What you do have is a beautifully photographed movie about the human spirit that tries its best to be apolitical but doesn’t always succeed.

The ballet sequences are nothing short of amazing. Cao dances for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England and his shortcomings as an actor are more than made up for by his strengths as a dancer. Schull also has experience as a dancer with the San Francisco Corps de Ballet and her duets with Cao are incendiary.

Cinematographer Peter James has a terrific eye for both the starkness of the Chinese village and the Dance Academy as well as the beauty of the dance. Yes, there are some scenes that are going to bring a tear to your eye – some perhaps unnecessarily so. Still, Li’s story is inspiring and it doesn’t have anything to do with politics – well, maybe a little – and everything to do with the human spirit and what it will overcome to achieve what it is meant to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous dance sequences. Beautifully photographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and sensuality and one brief violent scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li already knew Cao whose parents were his teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy; Cao was Li’s choice to play him in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.3M on a $22.4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Farewell, My Concubine

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Septien

King of California


King of California

Michael Douglas is clearly up to no good.

(First Look) Michael Douglas, Evan Rachel Wood, Willis Burks II, Laura Kachergus, Paul Lieber, Kathleen Wilhoite, Anne Nathan. Directed by Mike Cahill

Don Quixote tilted at windmills and searched for the perfect woman, and for his troubles was labeled insane. Even today, those who search for the impossible dream are often considered lunatics and are treated as such.

Miranda (Wood) has a fairly atypical and comfortable existence. She’s managed to fool the authorities and her estranged family into thinking that she’s living with relatives. The truth is that the teenaged girl is living alone in her family home, her mother long since deceased and her father Charlie (Douglas), an ex-jazz musician, is spending his days at his new address in a local mental institution.

One day however, Charlie is released from the nuthatch and she is forced to deal with him again. He has a peculiar gleam in his eyes and an appetite for things that makes her think he’s up to something. He denies it at first, claiming he’s just going for a job interview at a local Applebee’s.

Except that he’s not. He is, in fact, up to Something and it is not in error that I capitalize. Using the internet for research, he has locked into the idea that a Spanish conquistador once buried a treasure full of gold in the Santa Clarita valley, where the two of them live. He is positively giddy with the idea.

Miranda doesn’t have time for the lunacy, at least not at first. Their ramshackle house, virtually falling apart around them, is theirs only by the skin of her teeth. She is working double shifts and overtime at McDonald’s to make ends meet. She has managed to purchase a car – nay, a hunk of junk that runs by the grace of God – and it is her pride and joy. It is the one tangible proof that she has accomplished anything in life.

Soon, Charlie’s quest, like Don Quixote before him, overruns her life and begins to take it over. He discerns, using the translated maps and adjusting for the terrain changes in the intervening years that the gold is buried beneath a palate of toys and a slab of concrete at the local Costco. He hatches a plot to go retrieve the treasure, but is there really anything there or is this just a product of Charlie’s mental illness?

This movie came and went on a limited release and now is getting a bit of airtime on cable. The allusions to Cervantes’ iconic character aren’t lost on Michael Douglas, who plays Charlie with a wild, unkempt beard (making him look oddly Spanish) and a gleam in his eyes that could be madness or could be Gordon Gekko messin’ with ya. It’s been years since we’ve seen Douglas perform as well as he does here, having mostly done mediocre supporting roles in forgettable comedies recently. This is certainly a comedic role, but Douglas plays him in a sympathetic vein, making it very easy to root for the clearly unbalanced Charlie, even though we know he’s probably out to lunch.

Against this backdrop we have Evan Rachel Wood, a competent actress in her own right and she makes the best of a thankless role. Although she narrates the film, still the movie is Charlie’s and it is him you will remember from the movie, which is the way the filmmakers want it. Wood is no Dulcinea here – she’s far too worldly for that – but she plays the role as a girl wise beyond her years. Miranda humors Charlie mainly to give him something to do at first, but eventually she buys into his madness. It is charming to watch, and some of the later scenes in the movie are some of the best Wood has ever done.

The difficulty here is in balancing the story with the impulse to over-emphasize Charlie’s quirks, an impulse Cahill fails to resist. At times, Charlie’s screwloose charm dominates the movie overly much, making it nearly impossible to follow the story because the movie stops dead in its tracks in those instances. Still, for the most part, it moves nicely at a pace that isn’t too fast which might irritate those of the post-MTV generation who don’t like staring at the same shot for more than five seconds.

The story doesn’t really mine any new territory, and that’s okay. What matters here is that the movie’s point about the mind-numbing blandness of modern suburban life is well-taken and well-illustrated here. Few of Costco’s customers notice the wild-looking man pacing about Costco with a metal detector, all lost in their own banal nightmare. Charlie is a spark of life in an ocean of conformity, one who embraces life and seeks out adventure even when such acts are frowned upon and thought insane. One wonders if perhaps Charlie is the only sane one of all those living in a colorless world of interchangeability in which people all over the country in cities and suburbs identical to this one buy the same products in the same stores and eat at the same restaurants afterwards. If Charlie’s insane, then commit me now. I’d rather live in his world than in the other.

WHY RENT THIS: Douglas gives one of his best performances in years. The film pointedly illustrates how bland, banal and interchangeable modern suburban/city life is.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie sometimes goes a bit overboard with the quirkiness. No new territory is really mined here.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of off-color language and references to past drug use but the kicker here is the portrayal of mental illness. More mature kids might be okay with this, but certainly fine for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production filmed in a working Costco during the nighttime hours when the store is normally closed. A cash register was kept open so that the crew could make purchases during the shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This carries with it one of the strongest audio commentary tracks you are ever likely to hear. Highly recommended for that alone.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Mountain Patrol: Kekexili