26 April 2008

Terry Gilliam (addendum)

1996 | The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys (directed by Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe)
This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that follows Gilliam from the shooting to the editing to the ADR sessions to the test screenings for 12 Monkeys. Apparently, Gilliam decided to have someone document the process in case it turned into a disaster like Baron. That way, he'd have evidence that it wasn't his fault. In the end, nothing like that happened and 12 Monkeys went on to become a huge success.

Perhaps because the movie was largely untroubled, the documentary isn't quite as exciting to watch as it could be. The timidity of the filmmakers didn't help. Early in the film, they announce that they're too scared to point the camera at Gilliam while he's in the middle of yelling at someone. The screen randomly focuses on a craft services table for a moment, but we can't even hear what Gilliam is upset about and it quickly cuts to something else. They lost my support right there. If you're not up to standing in the path of a pissed Gilliam -- granted a scary sight -- then don't accept the job of behind-the-scenes documentarian on one of his movies.

The one bit of the documentary that I did find interesting covered the disastrous test screenings. The agony displayed on the faces of Gilliam and the writers as they learn the results of the first test screening is quite a sight. Confidence melts into confusion and worry which melts into anger. In the end, they decided not to change the film based on the screenings and 12 Monkeys went on to earn $160 million worldwide. Lesson learned, no doubt. (6/10)

Terry Gilliam (The Fisher King | 12 Monkeys)

1991 | The Fisher King
Gilliam's Intolerable Cruelty. I've seen this movie-type a million times: a free spirit teaches the down-and-out main character how to love himself again so that he's able to love others. Also in there: boy meets girls, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Yawn. Just wake me up when the Red Knight is on screen. (Even my wife, a connoisseur of romance novels, hates this movie).

Rather than complain about the awful script, I'll list what I did like about the movie. I thought Mercedes Ruehl was excellent in her role as The Dude's long-suffering girlfriend. Maybe she was just playing a stereotype -- I've never been to NYC -- but she seemed to have completely inhabited her character down to the tap-tap-tapping of too-long fingernails. The aforementioned Red Knight was pure Gilliam medieval fun. Despite having Robin Williams play the insane character, Gilliam seems to have miraculously reined him in for the most part. The transvestite homeless cabaret singer was hilarious.

I suppose this was a necessary step in Gilliam's career. After the disaster that was Baron, Gilliam needed to prove that he could make a successful movie under budget. He accomplished just that: The Fisher King was a moderate success at the time and generated a profit. Considering the two films that followed this one, I can't really complain. (5/10)

Watched: NTSC DVD released by TriStar/Sony in 1998. Video has compression artifacts visible all over the place dancing in sometimes interesting patterns, but -- given that the disc is a decade old and came out at the dawn of the DVD era -- this isn't a surprise.

1995 | 12 Monkeys
I can't seem to decide if there's anything to 12 Monkeys. Is it hard sci-fi, or just a neat time travel/apocalyptic movie? Do Gilliam and the writers have anything to say here?

There's an attempt at a subplot in the middle of the film that suggests Cole may be imagining his travels through time, but I don't think this has anything to do with the main thrust of the film. It's hard to imagine we're supposed to seriously consider this idea, really. There just isn't enough ambiguity built into the script for it to really go in such a Dickian direction. Cole disappears from his restraints and a locked room in the insane asylum. He gets a WWI bullet lodged in his leg. He correctly remembers that the boy trapped in the well was a hoax. None of these things can be written off on his mental condition by the viewer.

However, the insanity subplot does allow the film to play with the idea of the malleability of memory. Cole's dream of the shooting in the airport -- which is actually a memory from childhood -- constantly changes throughout the movie. His mind -- as all our minds do -- edits his own memory based on the new information he's gathered to that point. Towards the end of the movie, he has such a strong desire for 1996 to be the present that he relegates his memories of his life in the future to delusions. In an -- probably not unintentional -- ironic twist, the scientists in the future choose Cole for his excellent memory.

Perhaps this is set up to contrast with the reality presented in the film. As Philip K. Dick once said, "reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." No matter what Cole talks himself into believing and no matter what he does, fate continues to march him towards his end. Fate, like film itself, unwinds inexorably to its conclusion. Though our expectation for this type of movie is that the hero will figure out a way to save the day, this cannot be no matter how much Cole or the viewers want it. The day was already lost decades ago; the future is the preset and Cole is simply playing his part in history.

Whether all of this qualifies as serious, hard sci-fi or not, I enjoy the movie a great deal. Anything involving time travel, a super-virus wiping out most of the population and insanity is not going to have to do much more to get on my "great flicks" list. (8/10)

Watched: NTSC DVD released by Universal in 2005. Excellent picture and sound.

24 April 2008

OLR: Waxworks (1924)

The dream-like, far-too-short Jack the Ripper story was the sole sequence of interest in this anthology. (5/10)

d. Leo Birinsky & Paul Leni

OLR: The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920)

This expressionist prototype for Whale's Frankenstein, while not a good as Caligari, is pleasure to behold. (7/10)

d. Carl Boese & Paul Wegener

21 April 2008

Guest OLR: Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

A cocktail of bright colors, bad English acting, and every western genre cliche imaginable packed tight into a high velocity round and bullseyed from a six-shooter directly into the pleasure centers of the brain. (9/10)

d. Takashi Miike

Terry Gilliam (addendum)

1985 | Brazil: The "Love Conquers All" Version
I went into this with an open mind. Despite admiring the director's cut a great deal, I was thinking: "it's still 100% Gilliam's footage, they have to follow the basic script, the actor's performances won't change: how can it be bad?" It can be plenty bad, actually. Through the power of editing, the idiot suits from Universal cut the film into worthless pabulum. The change in the ending is, of course, the absolute greatest sin. The shot of Lint and Helpmann interrupting Sam's dream in the torture chamber is removed, making Sam's dream of Tuttle's rescue and country living with Jill a reality.

There are a myriad of smaller changes that grate almost as badly, especially if you're familiar with the director's cut. There's only one dream sequence -- "helpfully" surrounded in a sitcom-style white, hazy border so you know what it is -- and it's merely the pleasant part of the first dream in which Sam flies through the clouds and spies Jill. Tuttle is specifically IDed as a terrorist. The rack of TVs playing the Central Services ad at the beginning does not explode. Lines by Jill wisely cut by Gilliam are reinserted, weakening her character quite a bit. Michael Kamen's score is applied in an entirely different way, drastically changing the mood of certain scenes. I could go on, but it's not worth any more thought. (4/10)

2008 | The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen (produced by Constantine Nasr)
A feature-length documentary found on the 20th anniversary DVD and BD that chronicles the problematic production of the movie. Unlike the debacle that was The Making of Alien³, this documentary is impressively candid. None of the interview subjects have trouble speaking their minds and none appear to have been censored. Eric Idle dubs the whole experience a nightmare, Sarah Polley essentially accuses the production of breaking child labor laws, producer Thomas Schühly talks a whole lot of smack, and Gilliam himself describes how he punched out his own windshield after screaming at a financier. It was all quite interesting and answered all of the questions I had about the making the movie (like, Robin Williams refused to be credited because he hated Schühly). Nice work. (7/10)

19 April 2008

Terry Gilliam (Brazil | The Adventures of Baron Munchausen)

1985 | Brazil
Gilliam's masterpiece and, until Children of Men, my favorite dystopian movie. Everything about the film rings pitch-perfect to me, and I think it plays much better in our current political era than it did during the Reagan/Thatcher '80s.

One reason this film works so well is that the universe it creates never violates its own style. I think it's important for comedies -- black comedies especially -- to be consistent in their tone. Jabberwocky, for example, failed at this. Every time something funny would happen, it would jar me out of the taken-very-seriously medieval setting. In Brazil, the retro-idiocy of the design of Sam's telephone clearly exists in the same universe in which old women's faces are stretched like Silly Putty during plastic surgery. I would say the same for the ubiquitous ducts, a receipt for a receipt for a snatched husband, a suffocatingly billboard-enclosed highway, or a stenographer recording every scream of pain in an interrogation transcript. Though bits of it may be absurd if transplanted into our world, nothing ever feels out of place in Brazil.

Speaking of the production design: whoa! Outside of Blade Runner, is there a more confident, original, fully-realized sci-fi world on film? The technology used in the film essentially established an entirely new sci-fi subgenre. Some call it "retro-sci-fi"; I kind of see it as a '30s version of steampunk in a way. The tech combined with the sub-sub-compact cars, the gray suits and the art deco/industrial architecture all create a can't-take-your-eyes-off-it setting in which the story and characters rest perfectly.

Brazil might also be called the start of the so-called "Gilliam Curse." In brief: MCA/Universal studio exec Sid Sheinberg thought the film could be made more commercial in the United States if it were shortened and the depressing ending removed. Gilliam took the fight to preserve his director's cut public and eventually prevailed. Not a bad way to start a "curse": Gilliam got what he wanted and generated a large amount of buzz for his movie at the same time. In the The Battle of Brazil: A Video History -- shot in 1996 -- he seems more amused than anything about the whole episode.

By far, Brazil is the best of Gilliam's unofficial dream trilogy. It might be that it's easier for me to identify with Sam -- I'm no longer a child like Kevin and not even close to being as ancient as the Baron -- but I also think he has the best enemy to escape from using his dreams. Bad parents and young punks with their new "reason" are one thing; being crushed in the gears of an unstoppable bureaucracy is altogether something else. (10/10)

Watched: NTSC 3-DVD set released by Criterion in 2006. I'm glad Criterion revisited this movie and gave it a proper anamorphic transfer. Brazil has too much detail in the background to be stuck with a crappy non-anamorphic made at the dawn of the DVD era.

1988 | The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
I regard this movie almost exactly as I do Time Bandits: it's a nice film, but I can never get into it as completely as I would like. My main complaints are the same as for Time Bandits: the pacing is off and we don't get to go on enough adventures. It takes a long 45 minutes before the Baron leaves the theater on his mission to save the town, and then we only get to visit three fantastic places:

  • The Moon (where Berthold is found)
  • A volcano (where Albrecht is found)
  • Inside a giant fish (where Gustavus, Adolphus and Bucephalus the horse were found)
We could've jaunted to two more places had three companions not all been found inside of the fish. And, frankly, the inside of the fish was pretty dull, especially coming after the excellent Moon and volcano sequences. Luckily, we do get a flashback tale of the Baron's first encounter with the Sultan to break up the 45 minute prelude a bit, which is quite a bit of fun.

Though I didn't really care for any of the scenes set in the town, the flashback, the Moon and the volcano scenes make the whole thing worthwhile. Oliver Reed's performance as Vulcan is unsurprisingly excellent. Uma Thurman is the spitting image of the Botticelli painting and the scene of her and the Baron dancing in the air is beautiful. The giant moon royals with their detachable heads and split personalities were incredibly creative. The Sultan's "torture organ" had me cracking up out loud. There is a boatload of color, energy and imagination on screen in this movie.

The "Gilliam Curse" really got going during the production of this film. It famously ran far over budget, causing untold stress on everyone involved. Money was so tight, production was stopped for a couple of weeks and it looked like it might never resume. Unlike Brazil, Gilliam wasn't able to declare victory over the curse for this film. A regime change at Columbia resulted in the movie being shoved aside and not supported during its release. It failed to make its money back and, worse, got Gilliam branded as an out-of-control director. Yet, despite all of the behind-the-scenes pain, not one bit of this shows on the screen. If anything, this alone demonstrates Gilliam's ability to stick fast to his vision no matter what else is going on. (7/10)

Watched: Blu-ray 20th Anniversary Edition released by Columbia/Sony in 2008. Excellent picture and sound.

13 April 2008

Terry Gilliam (Jabberwocky | Time Bandits)

1977 | Jabberwocky
Even though I'm skipping the Python films in this chronocinethon, it would be impossible not to mention Monty Python and the Holy Grail as it relates to Jabberwocky. Both are comedies set in the Middle Ages starring (all or some of) the Pythons and directed (partially or completely) by Gilliam. Jabberwocky is often called "pythonesque" and was advertised in America as Monty Python's Jabberwocky until Gilliam protested. There are certainly Python-style bits here and there: the flagellant whipping himself with wet noodles, the game of hide-and-seek to find the champion knight, the man pretending to be one of the princess' nuns.

Yet, there's a large difference in tone between the two films which I think illustrates how Gilliam's style and sensibilities differ when detached from his comedy troupe-mates. Holy Grail is purely silly. It has a killer rabbit, discussions of bird flight velocities and men clapping coconuts in lieu of actual horses. Jabberwocky begins with a man being eaten down to the bones by an unseen beast, his corpse causally dropped into the underbrush of a wood. Gilliam is dark; much darker than Monty Python. His version of "it's just a scratch" involves blood splattering across the faces of the king and princess as a knight loses a joust. His silly humor is a man cutting off his own foot in order to be a more successful beggar.

Does it work? Well, Jabberwocky is nowhere near as funny as Holy Grail. I don't think it was meant to be. Other than the humor, Gilliam's also busy playing with ideas of fate and capitalism. Maybe just capitalism. I don't know if a comedy of errors plot counts as an exploration of fate or not. But he was definitely trying to say something about capitalism. Well, maybe the only interesting bit on that subject was the part where the king and the merchants decide that the jabberwocky is good for the economy because it drives people into the city. Mostly, the movie feels chaotic and slapdash. Maybe Gilliam had something he wanted to say, but I have a feeling the enormous task of making his very first solo movie served as a distraction from this.

Most of the energy for the moviemaking seems to have gone into the production design, which is excellent. The Middle Ages are depicted as realistically filthy and decrepit. The castle is packed with details, from guild signs to a family living in a barrel to the unique pennants for each of the knights. I love the king's throne room, cloaked in darkness due to a lack of windows and candles, and constantly raining plaster as the castle rots. It would be worth watching this again just to pick out more of the details stuffed into the background.

Outside of the production design, the movie never worked for me. I didn't care about the main character. The humor was only ever able to elicit weak smiles from me. I wasn't even really interested in seeing how Dennis would inevitably fumble into killing the jabberwocky and marrying the princess. Still, it's not a bad first movie and shows plenty of signs of the director Gilliam will become. (6/10)

Watched: NTSC DVD released by Columbia Pictures/Sony in 2001. Terrible transfer. White speckles -- probably caused by dirt on the negative -- abound and I saw a hair or two dancing on the bottom of the frame towards the end of the film. Compression artifacts and banding are also common, probably partially caused by squeezing this 105-minute movie onto one side of a DVD-10.

1981 | Time Bandits
The first time I watched the movie was when I was already an adult, so I lack any nostalgic childhood memories of it. I wish I had those; I think I would've been nuts about this flick as a kid and would enjoy it more today. As it stands now, I have a hard time fully getting into the film.

The pacing never seemed right to me. It's either that the bandits spent too little time in each historical period, or that they didn't visit a good enough variety of them. Let's see, we got to visit:

I suppose that's a pretty good variety of time periods and places (though, unsurprisingly, all in Europe). And, maybe, spending more time in each of them would've dragged the movie down. But, due to the rapid pace, we never really got to know any of the characters the bandits ran into other than Sean Connery's Agamemnon. Blink and Ian Holm's hilarious Napoleon or John Cleese's aloof Robin Hood are already gone. I don't even think Evil had enough screentime to be established very well. Perhaps Time Bandits would've worked better as a TV mini-series, or even a trilogy of films? It would've been nice to see the bandits robbing Genghis Khan, the Great Pyramid of Giza before it was finished, or Aladdin of his lamp.

Gilliam comments on the pacing of the movie in the interview found on the Anchor Bay special edition DVD set. He observes that kids never had a problem with it. They were along for the ride and trusted where it was going. I guess I'm not in the right demographic for this movie anymore. I'll have to see what my daughter thinks of it in seven years or so.

Another problematic bit of the movie for me was that there were too many main characters. Six dwarves and a child were more than I was able to keep track of, or, frankly, care about. Randall, the leader, and Vermin, who would eat anything, are the only two dwarves I really remember after finishing the film. I think the number of dwarves could've easily been cut down to three or four without harming anything. Though, I did enjoy watching how Gilliam would stage all seven of these characters in his frames. No small task, to make a pun.

Despite all of my complaining, I like the movie. It's funny -- much funnier than Jabberwocky -- and clever and imaginative. The characters are fun to watch. I love the anti-consumerism / anti-lazy parent message conveyed through Kevin's parents. Their plastic-covered furniture and obsession with appliances were both hilarious and disturbingly real. I'm looking forward to seeing that idea expanded upon in Gilliam's next flick. (7/10)

Watched: NTSC 2-DVD special edition released by Anchor Bay in 2004. No complaints about this set. The audio and video are miles better than the non-anamorphic Criterion edition it replaced.

11 April 2008

OLR: Poltergeist III (1988)

I love the mirror theme and the evil duplicates that live therein, though the happy ending is awfully sad when you realize why Carol Anne doesn't show her face in the final shot. (7/10)

d. Gary Sherman

OLR: Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)

The casting of Reverend Kane is the sole exceptional aspect of this dull film. (5/10)

d. Brian Gibson

10 April 2008

OLR: Poltergeist (1982)

Now was it the pot smoking or the excessive TV-watching that caused the ghosts to make that dude rip his own face off? (7/10)

d. Tobe Hooper

OLR: Suspiria (1977)

Watching this half asleep was probably the best way to experience it. (7/10)

d. Dario Argento

08 April 2008

OLR: The Exorcist III (1990)

Blatty writing lines for both George C. Scott and Brad Dourif to chew on was quite the treat. (7/10)

d. William Peter Blatty

OLR: Teen Wolf Too (1987)

Screenplay find and replace: "Scott" with "Todd," "high school" with "college," "basketball" with "boxing" and "fun" with "incredibly boring." (4/10)

d. Christopher Leitch

07 April 2008

OLR: Teen Wolf (1985)

I can't decide if I want to grow up to be Stiles or the coach. (7/10)

d. Rod Daniel

OLR: Zardoz (1974)

Lots of beautiful photography, but it mostly feels like a bad college play. (6/10)

d. John Boorman

06 April 2008

OLR: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Some excellent action set pieces (SUV vs elevator! semi vs jet!) marred by a Hollywood "hack the planet" storyline (Kevin Smith as a hacker who literally lives in his mother's basement… arrgh). (6/10)

d. Len Wiseman

OLR: Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

McTiernan returns to show us how to rip off the first movie with it even feeling like it. (8/10)

d. John McTiernan

05 April 2008

Guest OLR: Revolver (2005)

Ritchie appeared to be more interested in Sorter than in the main character. (6/10)

d. Guy Ritchie

OLR: No Country for Old Men (2007)

Nothing better than showing a good movie to a friend who hasn't seen it. (9/10)

d. Joel Coen & Ethan CoenPublish Post

04 April 2008

OLR: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Similar to other movies of this budget, genre and era, but with just a little something that makes it special (Vincent Price, the score, that creepy lady?). (6/10)

d. William Castle

02 April 2008

OLR: Blade: Trinity: Extended Version (2004)

Dracula fleeing like a little girl the first time he meets Blade is only one of an uncountable number of pieces awfulness in this franchise-destroyer. (4/10)

d. David S. Goyer

01 April 2008

OLR: Blade II (2002)

Six years later, despite some flaws in plotting and the choreography of the digital stuntmen, I still like this movie a whole lot better than anyone else on the planet, apparently. (8/10)

d. Guillermo del Toro

[do not, ever, read Harry Knowles' review of this film]