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

Concert for George


Eric Clapton doing what he does best.

(2003) Concert Film (Abramorama) Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Dhani Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Joe Brown, Tom Petty, Ravi Shankar, Tom Hanks, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Gary Brooker, Billy Preston, Olivia Harrison, Jools Holland, Sam Brown, Ray Cooper, Neil Innes, Andy Fairweather-Low, Jim Capaldi, Carol Cleveland, Anoushka Shankar. Directed by David Leland

 

Most remember George Harrison as “the quiet Beatle” but the truth is that he was one of the great guitarists of his time as well as a sterling songwriter who wrote songs like “Something,” “My Sweet Lord,” “All Those Years Ago” and “Taxman.” He maintained a strong interest in Indian spiritualism and was a close friend to sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar who taught him to play the instrument and who considered him to be a son.

Harrison died too young at age 58 on November 29, 2001 in the home of a friend after a long battle with lung cancer. His widow Olivia and close friend Eric Clapton (whom Harrison had known since childhood) organized a tribute concert which took place a year to the day of his passing at the Royal Albert Hall in London. A virtual who’s who of British rock royalty, the concert had the benefit that all of the performers were close to Harrison in some way or form either personally or as performers. The music that was performed therefore was straight from the heart and it shows.

A documentary was made of the event but was never released theatrically as far as I know; it has been available off and on over the years on home video. Now, on the occasion of Harrison’s 75th birthday (which would have been February 25, 2018) music documentary specialists Abramorama have undergone a brief limited theatrical release of the original documentary (for local Orlando residents, it will be playing at the Enzian Theater on March 19).

There are interviews with some of the participants which are very brief; mostly director David Leland is content to let the music speak for itself which it does eloquently. In the interview segments, Harrison’s death is still pretty close in mind and for some the emotion is still raw but the event was a celebration, not an elegy and the overwhelming feeling you get is joy. As for the concert segments, music director Clapton wisely kept pretty close to the original arrangements that Harrison had so the songs remained familiar. The songs themselves range from music that influenced Harrison (like Carl Perkins’ “Honey Don’t,” performed by Starr) to his tenure with the Beatles and then his lengthy solo career that followed as well as his work with the all-star band the Traveling Wilburys.

There was also a comedy interlude in which former Monty Python members Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam performed “Sit on My Face” from The Meaning of Life and one of their signatures “The Lumberjack Song” in which they were joined by longtime Python associate Carol Cleveland, Bonzo Dog songwriter Neil Innes, actor Tom Hanks and the Fred Tomlinson Singers. Harrison was a huge Python fan and produced their final two movies through his HandMade Films banner which also produced several other memorable films as well. The levity is a welcome moment and makes a nice break during the concert.

There were some exceptions. Harrison had a great deal of affection for the humble ukulele so McCartney performed “Something” on it, a tribute he’d been doing on his own solo tour that year. The song then opens up into a full rock number with Clapton joining McCartney on vocals. Shankar wrote an original song for the occasion which was performed with his daughter Anoushka. Finally Joe Brown, a pioneering English rocker for whom the Beatles opened for back in the early days and for whom Harrison was best man at his wedding, played “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” one of the few songs not written by Harrison in the concert, on the ukulele. He was joined by nearly every musician that played in the show onstage for a touching finale.

Leland for some odd reason chose not to use onscreen graphics to identify the performers. That’s fine for widely recognized icons like McCartney, Starr and Clapton but not everyone knows who Gary Brooker is or what he looks for and the parade of rockers whose heyday was in the 60s (and in Joe Brown’s case, the 50s) are not always easy to recognize. Some are introduced verbally but mainly we never know who’s speaking in the interviews or performing onstage which is a bit irritating.

One thing that was a little-remarked grace note to the whole thing was the presence of Harrison’s son Dhani who played acoustic guitar on nearly every song. Dhani who was 24 at the time of the show is a dead ringer for his late father. Seeing him playing behind McCartney was oddly comforting, like a glimpse of the past. It is also good to see Petty, Shankar and Billy Preston playing again, all of whom have left us since this show took place as well as Sam Brown, a striking performer (and daughter of Joe Brown) whose career was sadly cut short when vocal issues forced her to retire.

In many ways this isn’t the most polished of concert films as the participants had little time to rehearse. Still, the fact that stars of this caliber made room on their schedules to be at this show is not only a testament to the respect they had for Harrison as a musician but for the love they had for Harrison as a person. That love shows up very plainly in the music they played that night and it certainly makes this worth seeing on the big screen if it plays anywhere near you; you can see where it is going to be playing here. If you can’t make it to a theater or it’s not coming to one convenient to where you live, take heart; the movie will be back on VOD and on various streaming services in the not-too-distant future.

REASONS TO GO: Clapton’s star power is very much on display. The Monty Python interlude is nicely done.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used some identification for the various aging rockers.
FAMILY VALUES: This is suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first time Paul and Ringo had performed together on the same stage since the break-up of the Beatles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 82/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Concert for Bangladesh
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Commuter

The Zero Theorem


Qohen Leth parties like it's 2099.

Qohen Leth parties like it’s 2099.

(2014) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, Melanie Thierry, Matt Damon, David Thewlis, Ben Whishaw, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Rupert Friend, Peter Stormare, Dana Rogoz, Madison Lygo, Ingrid Bisu, Naomi Everson, Radu Andrei Micu, Tudor Istodor, Olivia Nita, George Remes, Iulia Verdes, Alin Olteanu, Margarita Doyle. Directed by Terry Gilliam

The more complicated life gets – and make no mistake, it grows more complex with each passing day – the more we struggle to make sense of it. If you think it’s bad now, just imagine with those living in the future are going to have to contend with.

Qohen Leth (Waltz) is an office drone who has all sorts of issues. He’s a bit of a hypochondriac, sure that he is dying. He refers to himself in the second person – we instead of I, us instead of me. He works for Mancom, a company that makes some kind of software that brings convenience – or nothing at all. He is a data cruncher which in the future involves a Tetris-like placing of data squares into geometric city-like constructions, while furiously pedaling a flywheel. Data is transferred in vials of liquid. Being an office worker in the future sucks.

Qohen lives in an abandoned church infested with rats and pigeons, leaking from the roof and looking inside like a bomb hit it. He sleeps in the pipe organ and really would prefer to work at home, having no love for his fellow man. He’s also obsessed with a phone call he is sure is coming – one which will explain to him What It All Means and what his place in the grand scheme of things is. He’s twitchy, neurotic and in short, the very model of a modern Major General.

He asks his boss Joby (Thewlis) to get him permission to telecommute which doesn’t seem likely; the company likes keeping track of its workers. Qohen also meets Bainsley (Thierry) at a party thrown by Joby that Qohen goes to reluctantly, mainly to try and get a one-on-one audience with Management (Damon), the reclusive CEO of Mancom. He doesn’t know how to handle the forward Bainsley and although she gives him her card, there doesn’t seem to be any future for a relationship there. However, he is successful in getting time with Management (who wears clothing to blend into the decor) and at last is given a project he can work on at home.

New equipment is installed in his cluttered cathedral, mainly by the genius level Bob (Hedges) who turns out to be the son of Management (now doesn’t that sound like an office-based horror flick?) who addresses everyone as Bob because he doesn’t have time to learn their names. But he really isn’t a bad sort.

In the meantime Qohen is doing strikingly well with the project and getting close to making it work and things with Bainsley are turning out superbly, particularly when they meet on a digital beach where the sun is eternally setting. Life is good online at least.

But the closer Qohen gets to completing his project, the more frustrated he gets and the more he begins to retreat back into his shell. As it turns out, the project is about mathematically proving that everything equals nothing, which proves that there’s no point to life. The chaos this will create Mancom will profit from. And so it goes.

This has director Terry Gilliam’s thumbprint all over it, from the details, the somewhat wacky atmosphere that has marked all his work from his time as the only American member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus through his visionary career. Gilliam is certainly an acquired taste; not everyone gets his sense of humor and clearly his films don’t make a lot of money with few exceptions (Time Bandits being one). However, his work can be startlingly good and when it works he is one of the best directors living today. Even throwaway lines – an advertisement for the Church of Batman the Redeemer – can bust me up laughing.

Waltz, head shaved and twitchy, is terrific here. You get the sense that this is an individual who is in deep pain and takes great pains to make sure he remains so. There are some hints that give background into his psyche  but clearly this is a man who in our society would be undergoing all sorts of therapy and might well be committed. He seems to fit in real well in the future.

He gets some fine support, particularly from Hedges whose Bob becomes good friends with Qohen in an oddball way, and Thierry who is beautiful and charismatic as the love interest. All of the characters show some sort of vulnerability at some point, wearing masks to hide their pain. Qohen is a little more up-front about it. Management, being management, shows no weakness.

Visually this is an amazing movie, from majestic scenes of a black hole to the rotting interior of Leth’s home and the clever scenes of what is supposed to be London (maybe) in the near future but is more than likely Bucharest. There is a definite steampunk look to the film which is kind of a thing this year in indie films.

This hasn’t received any sort of release yet, although the movie’s website is promising a summer release. I hope that the distributors deliver on this; this is a movie that should be seen, by Gilliam’s fanbase if by nobody else. This is among his very best films which makes it a classic in the making, so serious film buffs should check this out even if they aren’t especially fond of Gilliam’s work.

REASONS TO GO: When it hits the mark, it’s mind-blowing. Terrific set design and Waltz is terrific in a very different role than you’re used to seeing for him.

REASONS TO STAY: As Gilliam films are prone to do, they can meander sometimes. If you don’t like Gilliam’s films, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some expletives here and there as well as some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the park scene, screenwriter Pat Rushin (who also teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida) can be seen on a bench writing on his briefcase; he’s actually writing motivational lines that scroll across the computer screen in the cubicles during a different part of the film. His wife can also be glimpsed reading a newspaper.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brazil

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Railway Man

For No Good Reason


The artist in his workshop.

The artist in his workshop.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, William S. Burroughs, Hal Wilner. Directed by Charlie Paul

If you look at the names in the cast of this documentary, you’ll see some of the greatest and most iconoclastic minds of the 20th century. That they are all linked by one famously private British artist gives you an idea of the esteem that he’s held in and the kinds of people who love his art.

Ralph Steadman moved from Great Britain to New York in the 1950s and the following decade met Thompson on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman would become the illustrator of Thompson’s books and his style and images have become permanently linked with Thompson’s prose. His association with Thompson helped make him essentially Rolling Stone‘s house cartoonist during the glory days of the magazine.

His style which utilizes great big spatters of India ink and other materials is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. We see his technique which is perhaps unique in all of art; when he scatters paint spatters across his canvas, he is almost angry as the liquid hits the surface with an audible SNAP.

Thompson and Steadman maintained a friendship that was often dysfunctional – Steadman hints at the verbal abuse that Thompson would occasionally heap on him – but the genuine affection is evident between both men.

Depp acts as kind of a host and occasional narrator here, appearing onscreen at Steadman’s home and studio in Kent, England to converse, reminisce and utter the word “amazing” again and again while perusing books of Steadman’s artwork while wearing ostentatious hats. I can understand why he’s there – the presence of Depp doubtlessly enticed Sony Classics to distribute the film (which reportedly took 15 years to make) and might be expected to attract fans of the star to see the movie.

Sadly however, the effect of having Depp in the movie is intrusive and takes away focus from the subject of the film. I don’t think that could be helped but frankly, I would have preferred a little less Depp and a lot more Steadman. Steadman doesn’t share a lot of himself to the world; he rarely grants interviews and when he does almost never reveals any personal information. He prefers to let his artwork do the talking for him.

Steadman does make it clear that he sees the role of art as a means to change things for the better, which is admirable. While Thompson did copious amounts of drugs and partied maybe as hard as anyone in history ever has, Steadman did no drugs and focused his attention on social and political causes, many of which were the subjects of his art. His wit is often scathing and generally on the sly side which is on good display here from the opening frames when the Sony Classics logo is displayed in Steadman’s preferred font.

Steadman admires disparate talents like Da Vinci and Picasso, and there is an element of the cave drawings in his art as well, a kind of modern primitivism. The interpretation of art is an individual thing – what I see when I look at Steadman’s work will be somewhat different than what you see. That’s the beauty of art – we see it through our own perceptions and something I miss you’ll latch onto, and vice versa. Everyone interprets art individually.

Along with the Depp thing, I thought the film dragged a bit in places and was tedious in other places. Some judicious trimming would have benefitted the film overall. It is also disappointing that we don’t really get to know Steadman well, although we learn a lot about him. For that alone and for being a fly on the wall as he creates makes the film worth viewing, but I can’t help but think that there should have been a better film made considering the subject matter.

REASONS TO GO: Clever at times, displaying Steadman’s signature wit. Fascinating look at Steadman’s process.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long and occasionally tedious. Depp’s presence is often distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fairly steady stream of foul language, some drug references and brief sexual images in an artistic setting

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steadman retains all of his original artwork. The only art he sells are copies or prints of his work which he signs individually.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 Begins!

New Releases for the Week of April 25, 2014


The Other WomanTHE OTHER WOMAN

(20th Century Fox) Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kate Upton, Taylor Kinney, Nicki Minaj, Don Johnson. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

A high-powered lawyer who has her pick of men has settled on one – who might be the One. When she discovers he’s married, she’s devastated. When she accidentally gets together with the wife of her former boyfriend, they discover that they have a lot in common – among other things that he’s cheating on the both of them with another woman. Joining forces with the other other woman, the three women plot this philanderer’s comeuppance.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual references and language)

Brick Mansions

(Relativity) Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy. In the Detroit of the near future (does that sound familiar?) a gigantic wall has been built around the worst slum, Brick Mansions. The crimelord of the district has put into motion a plan to devastate the entire city. An undercover cop and a fearless ex-con, each of whom have a stake in apprehending the crimelord, must (reluctantly) team up to stop him before all Hell breaks loose.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for frenetic gunplay, violence and action throughout, language, sexual menace and drug material)

From the Rough

(Freestyle Releasing) Taraji P. Henson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Tom Felton, Justin Chon. The swim coach of the woman’s swim team makes history as the first woman to coach a men’s golf team. Not only is she a pioneer, but she successfully takes the team to record-breaking heights. Based on a true story.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Sports Drama

Rating: PG (for language and thematic elements)

Joe

(Roadside Attractions) Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins.An ex-con with a hair-trigger temper takes a homeless young boy under his wing to the chagrin of the boy’s alcoholic and brutal father. The ex-con, beset by his own demons, tries to set the boy on the right path of life while facing the consequences of his own poor choices. Sold out it’s showing during the Florida Film Festival, you can read my review here.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for violence, disturbing material, language and some sexual content)

The Last Passenger

(Cohen Media Group) Dougray Scott, Kara Tointon, David Schofield, Lindsay Duncan. A weary London commuter and his son board the last train of the evening, headed home. As the train rolls into the night, he discovers that the conductor has disappeared and the brakes have been sabotaged. A lunatic has taken control of the train and means to commit suicide by train, taking the passengers with him.  This passenger, however, isn’t ready to die just yet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for language)

The Quiet Ones

(Lionsgate) Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Erin Richards, Olivia Cooke. University students set out to create a poltergeist, the focus of their experiments being a dangerously disturbed young woman who seems able to manifest dark energies. However as the experiment continues, they soon discover to their horror they have unleashed something far more dangerous than they imagined and much too powerful to contain.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday)

Genre: Supernatural Horror

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and terror, sexual content, thematic material, language, and smoking throughout)

The Railway Man

(Weinstein) Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Hiroyuki Sanada. A veteran of the Second World War is haunted by his harrowing experiences in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He and his cohorts are used as forced labor to build a railway system. Years after the war is over, he discovers that the interpreter whom he holds responsible for much of his brutal treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him and make him pay for what he did. This true story is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-Roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for disturbing prisoners of war violence)

Walking With the Enemy

(Liberty) Ben Kingsley, Jonah Armstrong, Hannah Tointon, Burn Gorman.In the waning days of World War II, a young Hungarian man utilizes a stolen Nazi officer’s uniform to try and find his displaced family. Trying to get as many Jews to safety as he can, he disrupts the activities of the Germans in order to keep them from implementing their final solution in his city. Said to be inspired by actual events.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: War Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for war violence including crimes against humanity)

The Zero Theorem

(Well Go USA) Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Matt Damon, Tilda Swinton.  In a dystopian future, a reclusive computer genius is given the assignment of finding the meaning of life. Plagued by angst and confusion, he is tortured by unwanted visitors by those he doesn’t trust. It isn’t until he breaks down the walls he has erected for himself with love and desire that he finds the tools to carry out his assignment. The newest film from visionary director Terry Gilliam.

See the trailer, featurettes and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: R (for language and some sexuality/nudity)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail


It's only a flesh wound.

It’s only a flesh wound.

(1975) Comedy (Rainbow Releasing) Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Connie Booth, Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes, Bee Duffell, John Young, Rita Davies, Avril Stewart, Sally Kinghorn, Mark Zycon, Elspeth Cameron, Mitsuko Forstater, Sandy Johnson, Sandy Rose, Romily Squire, Joni Flynn. Directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

As a film critic, one of the questions I’m most often asked is what is my all-time favorite movie. Although the answer can vary according to my mood, the film that I find myself giving as that answer is this one.

In the dark ages, King Arthur (Chapman) has been given a quest by God to find the Holy Grail. He gathers around him worthy knights, such as the valiant Sir Lancelot (Cleese), the chaste Sir Galahad (Palin), the bookish Sir Bedevere (Jones) and the not very valiant Sir Robin (Idle).

On their quest to find the Grail, they will face fearsome foes like the Knights Who Until RECENTLY said Ni (Big points if you can remember AND pronounce what they say now), the temptresses of Castle Anthrax, the Black Beast of Castle Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh and most fearsome of all, the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog (vanquished only with the aid of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch). With his faithful servant Patsy (Gilliam) at his side, King Arthur will yield to no valiant knight to reach his goal. No foe too deadly, no quest too dangerous, no shrubbery so lush that he won’t find that darn Grail.

Later fashioned into the successful Broadway musical Spamalot, the movie remains one of the most influential when it comes to modern comedy movies. Repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and sending most comedy conventions sailing out into the air (only to land on a hapless page), the madmen of Monty Python appear to stumble through the movie but as we watch it unfold we realize that we are watching either the most cleverly plotted and mapped out movies or pure improvisational genius. It scarcely matters which one.

The late Graham Chapman as King Arthur provides the film’s straight man (although he has his share of zingers) and grounds the movie for the most part until at the end of the movie it goes whizzing over the cliff and shatters on the rocks below. The movie doesn’t so much conclude as end, which does frustrate a few non-fans but considering all the anarchy that preceded, is kind of fitting.

Listing all the amazing sketches and bits in the movie is nearly impossible but there is nary a false step in any of them. Terry Gilliam’s animations enhancing the movie and acting as bridges between sometimes wildly varying parts. Neil Innes contributes music and songs including the hilarious Ballad of Sir Robin with such memorable lines as “When danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled” which might well sum up certain political figures I will not name here.

I will say that Monty Python doesn’t appeal to every comedy taste. They are far too manic for some, too anarchic for others and too dry for others still. I am proud to say that I’m a Python addict and have been since an early age, thanks largely to this film and their TV show Monty Python’s Flying Circus which in my boyhood aired on our local PBS station in Los Angeles long after the series had been canceled by the BBC; I urge you to catch some of those episodes which are readily available if you can.

We are not likely to see the like of Monty Python again. They were a group of men whose sum was greater than their parts and each member fit perfectly into the role he was given. With Chapman’s untimely passing in 1989, Monty Python is no more – not really. Although the Pythons have gathered again (often with an urn supposedly containing his remains), they aren’t quite the same. Still they continue individual and as a group to shock, push the envelope of comedy and poke and prod the staid and stodgy cultural monoliths of Britain with a sharply pointed stick, and that is a good thing because frankly I’m too lazy to do it myself.

Not all of you will agree with my assessment of the movie but I don’t care. It is the only film I’ve seen in a theater more than twice, the movie I’ve watched more often than any other and yet it still never fails to make me laugh. I will admit that nostalgia plays a part in that but still, comedies for the most part have a limited shelf life – you can only laugh at the same jokes so much. This movie has kept me laughing for almost 40 years (not non-stop) which is an accomplishment. If you haven’t seen it, see it and form your own opinion. If you have seen it, see it again because the Pythons can use the cash. If your local art house screens a revival showing of it, by all means see it on the big screen – there’s nothing quite so awe-inspiring as seeing the Big Head of Light Entertainment in all its divine glory on as big a screen as possible. The IMAX people should take note. Either way, you may love it, you may hate it but you WILL form an opinion of it and it might just change your life. It certainly changed mine. Now go away or I will taunt you a second time.

WHY RENT THIS: The funniest movie ever made. Period.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t get their humor, you won’t like the film. If you do, you’ll watch it again and again and again. Some find the ending too abrupt.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a surfeit of foul language, crude humor, violence, sexuality, nudity and taunting.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was partially financed by sales from Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon. The band was huge fans of the troupe and would frequently halt recording of the album to watch their television show.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 2-Disc Collector’s Edition has a sing-a-long track for the film’s songs, the screenplay in text, two scenes dubbed in Japanese with the fractured English subtitles below, a performance of the film with Lego, a bit on which Palin as a representative of the Ministry of Foods explains the many uses of coconuts – including how to make clip-cloppy horse sound and a “Follow the Killer Rabbit” feature in which when the rabbit graphic appears on-screen you can select it to take you to corresponding documents and drawings.. Finally, there’s a pretty nifty featurette in which Palin and Jones take us on a tour of the various locations used for the film. The Extraordinarily Deluxe edition contains all of this, a CD of the film’s soundtrack (which contains a lot of audio excerpts from the film as well as some album-specific stuff), a quiz, and subtitles for people who don’t like the movie (taken from Henry IV, Part II). The Blu-Ray contains most of this, but also has a nifty iPad app that syncs up with the film and includes interviews with the surviving Pythons about the specific day of shooting for that scene. The app is $5 and only works on the iPad however.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $365,274 production budget; even given adjustments for inflation this was a major blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 44/10

NEXT: 2 Guns

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus


The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Heath Ledger unmasked.

(Sony Classics) Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell, Peter Stormare, Richard Riddell, Katie Lyons, Paloma Faith, Daniel Newman. Directed by Terry Gilliam

We all have out price, a weakness that can be exploited by the unscrupulous. However, keep in mind that when you make a deal with the devil, the consequences are almost always not what you expect them to be and the devil never gets the short end of the bargain.

Doctor Parnassus (Plummer) was once a humble monk of an order whose mission was to tell the story of the universe. They believed that as long as the story was being told, the universe would continue. The devil (Waits), or Mr. Nick as he prefers to be called, tries to disabuse Parnassus of the notion but is unsuccessful.

The devil, as we all know, is a bettin’ man and he wagers Doctor Parnassus that he can gather twelve disciples before Parnassus can with immortality the prize if Parnassus wins, which he does – although later he discovers that the wager was a trap and immortality not something wonderful, but a burden and a torture.

When Parnassus falls in love with a mortal woman, the devil allows Parnassus to adjust the bargain. The devil will make Parnassus young and mortal again in exchange for the soul of his firstborn daughter on her 16th birthday. Parnassus thinks he can trick the devil by not having any children but to his horror his wife becomes pregnant when she turns 60, dying in childbirth.

Valentina (Cole) knows nothing of this; she thinks her dad is an imaginative man who drinks too much. She is part of his traveling show along with the cautiously optimistic Anton (Garfield) who acts as a barker, and Percy (Troyer), the show’s all-around handyman and designated little person.

Valentina is three days short of her 16th birthday and Parnassus is getting desperate. The devil has been popping up to taunt the old man but eventually offers a new wager – the first one to gather five souls wins, with Valentina’s soul being the prize.

The troupe comes across a man hanging from Blackfriar’s Bridge in London with strange symbols written on his forehead. They rescue him despite the misgivings of Parnassus and Percy, only to discover he has no memory of who he is. Using arcane means, Parnassus discovers his name is Tony and that he once worked for a children’s charity.

The travelling show has not had many paying customers but Tony’s ideas to modernize the production and going to more upscale locations pays off. Doing so helps to bring in several people to be given a choice between doing the right thing and the easy thing – between the high road and the low road. This is done by entering Parnassus’ magic mirror, behind which is a fantasy landscape determined by the imagination of the person entering it. Inside the mirror, even the appearance of people changes. However, the clock is ticking and the devil is a persuasive man. Can Parnassus and Tony save Valentina by collecting five souls before time runs out?

Gilliam never fails to amaze. His movies are visual symphonies of the imagination, full of wonder and visual style. His storytelling can be all over the map, but if you are willing to let the film wash over you and absorb you, the sins of the filmmaker can be overcome.

One of the conceits of the tale is that those who enter the mirror must face a choice and indeed Gilliam had to face one of his own. Halfway through filming (with all of the exterior London scenes shot), his star Heath Ledger tragically passed away. Gilliam could either completely scrap the film (which he did once before with The Man Who Killed Don Quixote which ironically enough he is putting on film once again with cameras rolling this spring) or rewrite the script entirely. He and longtime writing partner Charles McKeown came up with the brilliant idea of changing the appearance of Tony inside the Imaginarium. Depp, Law and Farrell, all friends of Ledger, answered the call and would each play a different aspect of Tony inside various scenes in the mirror. Gilliam doesn’t bother to explain it other than with a few puzzled looks on the part of the actor playing Tony at the moment, and it works marvelously.

Ledger was on a roll after his career-making work as the Joker in The Dark Knight and this would have been, I suspect, another triumph for him had he lived. In his truncated role he is marvelous, playing a man with a great number of skeletons in his closet but with a great deal of charm. While Tony isn’t a villain per se, there is a villain inside him and while some might compare the part to the Joker, the two roles are quite different.

Plummer might be easy to overlook as Parnassus but that would be a mistake. The veteran actor turns in a marvelous performance as the tormented milleniumarian (is that even a word?) who salves his torment with drink. Garfield and Cole are very attractive in non-standard ways; I liked Garfield a great deal and with a bit of luck he could have a nice career ahead of him.

I was surprised by how well Troyer did here. Recently he has mostly been known for his appearances on VH1 reality shows that have shown him in a less than flattering light, but he does the best work of his career here. I hope that he gets some more roles of this kind after this. I’d also like to point out that Tom Waits makes a lovely Beelzebub (he has assumed the role in music videos for his own songs in the past). I’ve always been a big Tom Waits fan and any excuse to see him in a movie is all right by me.

The look of the film is rather rundown and grimy, what the Brits might call “a bit dodgy” which befits the disreputable Doctor himself. There is an almost Victorian feel to the show and the Imaginarium which, while not new to film, at least has a striking visual element all its own.

This won’t be remembered as a testament to Heath Ledger’s sadly short career (The Dark Knight will be) but this is a terrific film on its own merits. Morality plays, which this certainly is, are not as common now as they used to be, but in these shady times we could use more of them. When times are hard, the devil holds sway and we can use a Doctor Parnassus to show us the way to the high road.

REASONS TO GO: Terry Gilliam seems incapable of making an uninteresting film. Fine performances by Ledger, Plummer, Waits, Garfield and – surprise! – Troyer. Imaginative images abound in this film.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes the visuals are too overwhelming. A definite Eww! factor when the supposedly 16-year-old Valentina has sex with a much older man.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images, depictions of teen smoking and some sensuality. Might be a little much for younger kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Depp, Law and Farrell donated the money they made from the movie to Ledger’s daughter Matilda so that she may be secure in her economic future.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely one to see in a theater if you can find one showing it. It is certainly worth the effort to seek it out.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Stardust