12 Monkeys (1995)

12 Monkeys (1995) movie poster

director Terry Gilliam
viewed: 02/13/2015

Having turned Felix on to Terry Gilliam’s unusual brand of dystopic sci-fi with The Zero Theorem (2013), I thought he might enjoy this, the second film of Gilliam’s dystopia trilogy, his foray in Hollywood big time filmmaking, 1995’s 12 Monkeys.

“Inspired by” Chris Marker’s seminal 1962 avant-garde short film La Jetee12 Monkeys, as I’d recalled from the 1990’s was a pretty good movie.  What did I remember about it exactly?  Time travel, Bruce Willis, Madeline Stowe, a young Brad Pitt (who got an Oscar nomination for his Supporting Role) and actually, not much else specifically.  The film has recently inspired a Syfy channel television show, further expansion of our world of all things science fiction obscure now mainstream pop culture.

First and foremost, the kids thought the movie was long.  It is 127 minutes long.  My experience is that time is truly relative in a film.  80 minutes can seem forever in some cases.  Clara was clearly bored through much of the film and Felix kept noting that it was “a long movie”.

Me, I enjoyed it again.  My complaint about The Zero Theorem had to do with the apparent budgetary limitations of the film.  And for 12 Monkeys, that isn’t something one will be thinking about.  It seems kind of intangible to put one’s finger on exactly what “looks cheap” and what “looks good”, but 12 Monkeys is a nice-looking film.  Gilliam frequently employs a skewed camera, like a fish-eye at a wonky angle that sets the whole shot into a cockeyed perspective.  It might not be his strongest characteristic, but otherwise, the film is pretty gorgeous.

Though it begins with a flashback to a scene in an airport where a young boy witnesses the shooting of a man with long hair in an ambiguous reflection, the film is set in a present of 2027, on an Earth despoiled by a virulent man-made disease that has made the planet’s surface uninhabitable by humans, now overrun by the animals formerly of the zoo.  Bruce Willis is a bald prisoner of this weirdo future state who is sent back into the past to try to uncover the origins of the disease so that it can be better rectified in the future.  He first ends up in 1990 and then in 1996, the year in which the disease is unleashed on the world by a madman.

The 1990’s were a great time for Bruce Willis. He made a number of excellent and commercially successful films with a variety of interesting directors (as well as a lot of crap too).  Brad Pitt was just emerging on the scene — kind of hard to remember when he wasn’t one of Hollywood’s biggest names, but this film was produced before he “broke big”.  He’s pretty good here.

I actually enjoyed the film.  Clara was clearly restless, and while Felix did enjoy it, I guess he found it more of a slog than the other film.  I guess I was a little surprised by their collective ambivalence, but maybe the film is perhaps a little more “adult” in the ways that it’s interesting…I don’t know.  I’d rate it as very good, but perhaps not quite great.  It is quite interesting from a perspective of current affairs with diseases like Ebola last year and measles this year and terrorism everywhere.

The Zero Theorem (2013)

The Zero Theorum (2013) movie poster

director Terry Gilliam
viewed: 01/28/2015

These days, the promise of a new Terry Gilliam film doesn’t spark the same hope and wonder that it might have in the last century.  Following a string of middling compromise-laden movies like The Brothers Grimm (2005), Tideland (2005), and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), even Gilliam might forgive his fans to imagine that he would ever achieve the success of his Brazil (1985) ever again.

Yet, when I saw a trailer for The Zero Theorem, I was intrigued.  I’m still in Gilliam’s camp and will watch his movies whether I think they’ll turn out well or not (I’ve noted this over the years).

Oddly enough, The Zero Theorem might be his best film in some time.  It stars Christoph Waltz as a multiple-neurosis tech cog in a futuristic world, maneuvering data somehow for a mysterious corporation headed by a strange and spooky Matt Damon.  He fantasizes about a phone call to come with the key to the meaning of life attached to it, but when his value as an “entity cruncher” is recognized by his higher-ups, he’s also drawn out by a sexy call-girl played by Mélanie Thierry, into a virtual fantasy world.

The cast is actually quite excellent.  Along with Waltz, Damon, and Thierry, there is also David Thewlis and Tilda Swinton as well.

It’s considered a third segment in an “Orwellian” trilogy (according to Wikipedia), following Brazil and 12 Monkeys (1998), and I guess I can see that (it’s been a long while since I saw the latter film so I don’t recall it all that specifically).

The one thing that seems to really hold the film back to me is the production values.  The film was made on the cheap in Eastern Europe, and while some of the sets and costume designs (particularly the strange body suit that Waltz dons to go into the digital world) are nice but other parts look and feel super cheap and chintzy.  I have been reading a lot about the costs of film production and that directors like Gilliam are finding it hard to gain the kind of funding they need to make films that they want to make, so it seems harsh to call it out but it bothered me, thinking in particular in contrast to Brazil where the production design was so amazing.

I watched it with Felix, who really, really liked the movie.  I think he liked how different of a science fiction vision it was: no action and lasers, spaceships, the strange dystopian designs (he liked the film design).  He’s been asking to watch another film like it since (I’ve been thinking we could work our way back through Gilliam’s catalog and we may).

It’s another compromise of a film for Gilliam who may never get the kind of budget his films need and deserve to reach the levels of excellence like Time Bandits (1981) or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), but it’s a more qualified success than some of his 21st century output.  I liked it, maybe not as much as Felix did, but I liked it.  And I wish Terry Gilliam well and hope he continues to fight the good fight and make his brand of films for years to come.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) movie poster

director Terry Gilliam
viewed: 02/03/2012

The only time that I had seen Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was on VHS in 1990.  At that time, I wasn’t terribly familiar with it, though I had been very familiar with his 1985 film Brazil which was probably one of the first “art films” that I got into.  At the time, though there was a lot to like about Munchausen, I, like my friends, was inclined to consider it sort of mediocre, which given the circumstances of seeing it, makes some sense.

It was, however, in considering potentially entertaining fantasy adventure films for my kids, especially having just watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) at their behest, that I came to reconsider Gilliam’s great adventure film.  The kids had no idea what to expect, and I, over 20 years out from having seen it before, was due for some surprises, too.

More than anything, I was surprised by how charming and fun most of the film was.  If anything, it brought to mind such classic adventure fare as The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a solid, while quite whimsical romp, with some truly outstanding design elements and good fun.  The film is a long one, over 2 hours, and some of the sequences have less verve and fun as some others, it could doubtlessly use a nip or tuck here and there to tighten it up.  Still, it’s a very sound and good fantasy adventure, which Clara liked very much and Felix liked to some extent.

Set in some time in the 18th Century in a “town” besieged by the Turks, a small theater troupe is performing the adventures of the baron Munchausen, a popular series of stories based on the tall tales told and attributed to an actual Baron.  They are performing amidst an onslaught, when suddenly an elderly fellow, claiming to be the real Baron steps forth and begins spinning his tales, with really only the young daughter of the troupe leader (a nine-year-old Sarah Polley) who takes him for real.

But then he is “real”.  The film’s main thrust, outside of weaving a rollicking yarn, is the aspect of fantasy in the realm of “reason”.  As the intertitles tells us, the story takes place in “The Age of Reason” in which people continue to bomb the hell out of one another and when the film comes to its grand finale, the difference between the “real” and the “fantasy” is sort of clumsily (though perhaps intentionally) kept fuzzy.

Eric Idle appears as Berthold, one of the Baron’s sidekicks with variant superpowers (his is superspeed).  Another has great hearing and the ability to blow tremendously powerful wind with his breath.  Another is a sharpshooter and another is a strongman.  Maybe one of the downsides is that these characters spend most of the time as semi-useless, with only the briefest of moments of highlighting their hidden strengths.  The Baron himself is played by John Neville with a particular flair and charm truly befitting the character.  We’ve also got a young and beautiful Uma Thurman as the goddess Venus (an apt role indeed).

The adventures take them to the moon, into the depths of Mt. Vesuvius, and swallowed by a giant sea serpent/fish, all while the aging Baron is pursued by the shrouded and skeletal image of “Death”, ever-waiting to snatch his essence away.

The film is far from flawless but indeed is perhaps as good as anything that Terry Gilliam has directed.  I’m sure that there are those who would vaunt Time Bandits (1981) or the aforementioned Brazil as his masterpieces, but it’s clear to me that he is certainly a director who is worth considering among the most interesting and original living American directors (though it’s sometimes hard not to consider him English, what with his Monty Python affiliation).  And really, I did enjoy it more than I imagined I would (even with the tiresome Robin Williams as King of the Moon sequence).  I was tired of that 20 years ago.  Still am.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) movie poster

directors Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones
viewed: 01/25/2012

When I asked the kids what they wanted to watch on movie night, Felix said, “A classic.  Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”   Who am I to argue?

They’d watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) with their mother and we’d previewed a number of scenes from the film on YouTube.  But frankly, for all its popular cultural ubiquity and placement on many lists as one of the “greatest comedies of all time”, I don’t know if I’d actually seen it since the 1980’s.

Like so many things that I grew up with and had my own experience with, Monty Python has come to signify not only a style of British humor, but has gone far beyond the breadth of its initial run.  Of course, on Broadway, there’s Spamalot, adapted directly from the film and broadening the reach of the humor perhaps more deeply into the mainstream.  Of course, one thinks of the classic “nerd” when considering the most typical Python fan.  And I could hear echoes of that in my consciousness as I heard lines like, “I fart in your general direction.”

I’m going to go ahead and say it: It’s not a great film.  It’s funny, classic in many parts, but it’s also exemplary of the hit and miss nature of Python humor, gags, skits, what-have-you.

Am I showing my lack of cultivation by saying that I think the Black Knight scene is the funniest of them all?

The kids enjoyed it.  Like a lot of verbal/physical humor (like the Marx Brothers), I’m sure that there’s a lot of it that they didn’t get.  I’m sure that there’s stuff that I didn’t get.

It’s a classic, yes, indeed.  Extremely funny.  Far from flawless.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Terry Gilliam
viewed: 05/11/10

Despite what you may have heard, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a surprisingly likeable if flawed film.  Most people know it, if at all, as the last film that actor Heath Ledger was working on when he died tragically in 2008.  How time does fly.  Director and co-writer Terry Gilliam managed to get Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell to fill in to complete filming enough to modify the story and make a film of it, saving the loss of the project as a whole.  And really, overall, their contribution pays off in the film’s logic.  But the film still flounders, especially towards the end.  And then, in my opinion, it’s actually kind of charming.

Ledger had actually co-starred in a much less successful Gilliam project, The Brothers Grimm (2005), which sort of showed Gilliam’s delights and downfalls.  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus will never be confused with Ledger’s best performances (The Dark Knight (2008) or Brokeback Mountain (2005)), nor with Gilliam’s best work (Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975), Brazil (1985) or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)).  But it’s not as dire as many reviewers discredited it, nor nearly as good as one might hope.  Deeply in the vein of Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), it’s another paean to storytelling, fantasy, and imagination by a man with a lot of those, yet not enough perfection to make it stick every time.

The story is a convoluted one, about a Doctor Parnassus (played with great charm by Chrisopher Plummer), who via a series of deals with the devil (played by a knowing Tom Waits), develops a knack for story and fantasy, a sideshow performance in which on entrant enters his placid mind to create a surreal landscape of their own, an idealized and romanticized experience, like a live-walking dream.  He is assisted by his “midget” Verne Troyer, his daughter (the lovely Lily Cole), and her loving semi-boyfriend played by Andrew Garfield.

They meet Ledger as a tarot-predicted “hanged man”, who they rescue and recruit in their strange and dysfunctional, anachronistic performances.  Ledger’s character, post-rescue, shows signs of amnesia but also goodness and great skills in promotion that help the group.

Parnassus is dealt a hand by the devil that he must convert (entertain) five souls in 2 days before the 16th birthday of his daughter, or she’ll belong to the devil.  And while this drives Parnassus to drink and remember his own story of his over 1000 year life, it also sets the stage for all the drama.

The best sequences are really within the actors themselves.  I’ve never found Troyer as charming.  In fact, they are all charming.  The whole thing is likeable as one could want.  I kept hoping the film would keep up its pace and quality because I was enjoying it.

It does go a little too convoluted in the final stage, redeemed a bit in the denoument, but still, sadly a squandered chance.  Who knows how the story originally played out before Ledger’s death.  I think that Gilliam did a fine job finding quality actors to fulfill Ledger’s role and to build a story around which their different visages fit perfectly into the narrative.  The problem is still more in the overall of the film.  There is a loss of logic, a convolution of meaning, a confusion of what the story is really all about.  And it’s frustrating.

Gilliam is a very interesting director, whose catastrophes can be as interesting as his successes.  There is definite tragedy in Ledger’s death, ominously echoed throughout the film in its many references to life and death.  And there ligners a sadness about the film as well.  But still I give credit, and not just the credit of completing the film for financial sake but for honestly believing in the story and the performance, that something was worth salvaging and worth bringing to the full.  And while I wish it had been better, I feel more satisfied with the result than perhaps many.

Time Bandits

Time Bandits (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. Terry Gilliam
viewed: 12/05/08

Another anomoly of my “films that I had never seen” was Terry Gilliam’s 1981 Time Bandits, arguably, next to his less successful The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), his only “kid flick”.  It comes from a time in American cinema when the kid flick, the children’s film, is under fire from the special effects onslaught, the legacy of Star Wars (1977) and what will ultimately transform the Hollywood experience, the digital revolution.

It’s been one of my minor tropes in the film diary, to look at some of these early 1980’s children’s films, and an oddly rewarding one.  Time Bandits is arguably among the best.  And in some ways, perhaps one of Gilliam’s most successful films.  Truly, it is dated, and that level of the film’s charm is a little hard to read.  But really, the film works largely because of the characterizations and the humor and adventure, not to mention the far off-the-wall and somewhat more daringly lacking in comfort aspects of the narrative.

I’d like to say that the film is not really “pandering” to the wonder and enjoyment of a children’s film (not a fart joke in sight, for instance), but not shooting to just entertain the adults, the current “state of the state of art” in the industry, if you will.  The film’s humor isn’t based purely on puns or double entendres that adults will get but will fly over kids’ heads.  It’s an odd and rarely disappointing mixture of adventure, nonsense, and wackiness.

That said, my kids liked it, at times were a bit frightened, but in then end were not really that excited by it.  Of recent experiences, it reminded me most of Return to Oz (1985) and The NeverEnding Story (1984), which were also of the very fantastic, relying largely on acting and non-digital special effects.  I would say it’s the best of the three by far.

The titular Time Bandits are a group of six “little people” (all men), who burst through the closet door of a small town English boy, dragging him through time and space on a comical and slap-dash adventure, attempting to rob people throughout history.  They are armed with a map of time and space and reality that was created by a God-like force, and which they end up having to try to keep out of the hands of a Satan-like force, a duality of good and evil that isn’t particularly challenging, though the film does allow the boy to question why bad things are allowed to happen in a world ruled by good.  Something is more than nothing in moral ambiguity.

The story rambles.  At one point, Felix says to me: “Are they just going to keep going from door to door in time and never end?”  He recognized the lack of build-up and the potential endlessness to the narrative, even though more out of frustration.  It’s the difference between awe and entertainment, I suppose.  I liked it.  For what it’s worth.


Tideland (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Terry Gilliam
viewed: 04/03/07

Terry Gilliam makes interesting films.  Some of them are quite great (Brazil (1985) & Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and some of them are fairly bad (The Brothers Grimm (2005)). He is attracted to bizarre and interesting subject matter and has his total historical pedigree coming out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the lone American, the animator, art director, director.

Tideland is a gruesome, gothic, freakshow of a story.  I vaguely recall someone reading the book many years ago and praising it.  A young girl, pre-teen, plays with doll’s heads as her parents shoot heroin and methodone (which she helps her dad prepare), until they die.  She is abandoned by their death in the middle of nowhere, with a bizarre neighbor and her mentally damaged brother, who have as many issues as her parents had.  I think the mummification of Jeff Bridges by his former lover is among some of the most over-the-top things that I have seen in films, played somewhat for comedy, but with some sense of emotional realism, I think.

The weirdest thing, and I don’t know if this was in the original theatrical showing of the film or simply added to the DVD, is the opening presentation by Terry Gilliam himself, addressing the viewers and saying that this is a vision through a child’s eyes and that some people will hate it and others may love it, but that he “found the child within himself” in the process of making the film and that it was “a little girl”.  The sincerity value of this is odd, but struck me as genuine.  This is pretty much a cult film to be, with some huge overacting by Jodelle Ferland, the youngster who has to carry this film, and the campy acting by everyone else.  I hate to say it but it might have been interesting to see this film directed by Lasse Hallström or something.

At the same time, Tideland was panned by critics and given very low marks.  I have to say that it was both better and worse than I expected but maybe more better than worse.  There are some nice shots of the countryside and some interesting moments and sequences.  I actually thought it would be more visually fantastical rather than just a film in which everybody acts real crazy all the time.  It made me think of Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997), which I really really liked at the time, much better than this film, but it was also the story of a child in a fantasy world, including living with the corpse of a father for some time.  It’s amazing, but maybe that could become its own unique sub-sub-sub-sub genre.  Crazy children living with dead parents.

The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Terry Gilliam
viewed: 01/09/06

Terry Gilliam is one of those directors of whom I will watch pretty much anything he makes. It’s not that his work is consistantly great, but rather that it is consistantly different and unusual. And, of course, he has made some very good films, too.

I’d heard that The Brothers Grimm was not very good and knew that it had been sitting on shelves, so to speak, waiting for a release date for some time. That is often a sign of a movie with which studios do not know what to do. Still, even so, I kind of liked the concept of the titular brothers going around Europe pretending to root out witches and horrors until they end up facing one that is real. The story weaves around a bit of fairy tale stories and reconfigures them in amusing ways. And the tone of the film is pretty good, light and funny.

But it’s not that great. I’m not a particular fan of Heath Ledger or Matt Damon, but they actually do pretty well here. The narrative gets a little cheesy with some of the more dramatic parts that it tries to pull off and the female lead is sort of a pretty lame faux-feminist sort of character. That part of it lacks imagination.

There are moments when one feels that there was real potential here. But in the end, it’s not great. That said, I didn’t mind the film. It may be a lowlight in Gilliam’s career thusfar, but it’s not totally embarrassing.

Lost In La Mancha

Lost in La Mancha (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Keith Fulton, Louis Pepe
viewed: 07/03/03

Originally started as a “making of…” documentary about Terry Gilliam’s project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Lost in La Mancha wound up documenting instead the disaster that the film’s production became. Lost in La Mancha, in the end, is a decent film about the film-making process and a sidelong biography about Gilliam himself. Gilliam, I think, is one of the more consistently interesting directors working in Hollywood, and this film might have been more interesting if it attempted to contextualize his work more, looking at the challenges of a filmmaker with very un-Hollywood ideas as he tries to cast his visions onto multi-million dollar productions. As it is, the film only gives the briefest mention of his previous films, showing no clips from them and not visiting them in depth. Still, there is a lot to enjoy in this film, amusing scenes and moderately informative glimpses into the world of movie-making.

The highlights of this film are indeed the meager footage from Don Quixote that were shot, suggesting that it could have been quite a fun movie had it seen completion. Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort were to star in Gilliam’s film and appear in many scenes as the disasters ensue. Ultimately the film production is cancelled with Rochefort develops a nasty prostate infection.

This is a small film, neither ambitious nor radical, quite unlike the work that Gilliam attempts to accomplish. It does have a good humor about it, and I enjoyed it. It was rather amusing.