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Terry Gilliam

Videophiled: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ versus ‘Time Bandits’

GuardiansGalaxyGuardians of the Galaxy (Disney, Blu-ray+Blu-ray 3D, DVD, VOD) is based on one of the more obscure Marvel Comics to get the big screen treatment, but everything about the film suggests a filmmaker trying to recapture the sense of energy and color and sheer fun of Star Wars and the pop space opera. That’s a pretty good marriage and director James Gunn, whose talent for balancing genre tropes with tongue-in-cheek humor and colorful characters came through nicely in Slither, makes it a winning union.

It’s not that the story is particularly fresh—there’s a super-evil megalomaniac (Lee Pace) bent on exterminating an entire race of beings and he needs a fabled super-weapon to execute his plan, which intergalactic soldier of fortune Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who calls himself Star Lord, happens to have—and frankly the whole everything-hinges-on-a-series-of-showdowns third act is getting a little tired by now. That’s par for the course for both comic book action spectacles and space opera adventures and this doesn’t shake it off.

But Gunn does make the journey a lot of fun, with an oddball cast of renegades who, tossed together in a deep space prison, team up to escape and wind up staying together because it suits their purposes, but really because it sucks to be alone. These guys are all outlaws, but they are not villains, and in the right place at the right time, that makes them heroes. The script is tossed through with entertaining banter, the action sequences are spirited and filled with inventive imagery, and the spirit of the whole enterprise is bright and energized, right down to the bouncy jukebox of seventies tunes that Peter carries around as his personal soundtrack.

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Film Review: ‘The Zero Theorem’

‘The Zero Theorem’

Since creating the dystopian classic Brazil in 1985, Terry Gilliam has directed just eight more features—a disappointing total for such a feverish imagination. And those films have frequently been half-cocked or messed up, as though damaged in transit. His newest is signature Gilliam: visually exuberant and robustly cynical, it shows the director still circling the big ideas he’s been nursing since his Monty Python days.

Pat Rushin’s futuristic script is draped around the defeated shoulders of a worker drone named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz). Convinced he is dying, he pesters his manager (David Thewlis) to be allowed to work—Qohen inputs “entities” into a fearsomely complicated database—at home.

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Blu-ray: The Definitive ‘Brazil’

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (Criterion), a dark, dense science fiction fantasy, is like “1984” rewritten by Monty Python, an absurdist nightmare of Kafka-esque dimensions.

Jonathan Pryce is the dreamer trapped as a worker bee in the bureaucratic maze as deadly as it is indifferent, until he falls in love with a woman (Kim Greist) he thinks may belong to the terrorist underground. The road to true love involves lunches with his plastic surgery-addicted mother (Katherine Helmond), bureaucratic dueling with an air condition repairman (Bob Hoskins), and cozy relations with the friendly neighborhood interrogator (Michael Palin). Fittingly the film took its own circuitous route to release. Universal stalled the release and even reedited the film, until Gilliam screened the film himself for the Los Angeles film critics, who championed the film and lavished it with end of the year awards.

Universal released the 132 minute theatrical cut of the film, the same one that played theaters in the U.S., on Blu-ray last year in a bare-bones edition. But well over a decade ago, Criterion released Gilliam’s definitive version of the film, culled from materials in numerous different release cuts, in a deluxe three-disc DVD set packed with supplements. That edition now debuts in a newly-mastered, Director Approved Blu-ray set.

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Review: Jabberwocky

[Originally published in Movietone News 56, November 1977]

We sometimes say that comedy is a very serious business, and we’re right; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t make us laugh. Comedy is serious when it makes us laugh in an important way, at something—whether big or dangerous or overrated—with which we can deal more easily once we’ve laughed. Annie Hall brought humor out of things that cause people great pain, and those who love the movie seem to value their laughter very highly, as a kind of liberation: as a friend put it, “Annie Hall may do for neurotics what Rocky did for everybody else.” But the laughter is crucial, and unfunny comedy is just depressing.

In Jabberwocky, for instance, we may be taken with the way Terry Gilliam has cast an attack by medieval dragon in the first-person mode of Jaws and King Kong—complete with tuneless, throbbing background music—or with his satiric images of life in the Middle Ages, which look like the work of a wicked 19th-century cartoonist. We may laugh in spite of ourselves the first time the innocent-abroad hero, Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin), is accidentally peed upon—likewise when garbage is thrown on him or he falls into a manure pile—but it’s hard to laugh the second or third times: we can take only so much offal humor at a sitting. Cooper’s grotesquely fat lady love Griselda, sitting on her lake porch munching placidly on a raw potato, may strike us as a marvelous creation, until we realize how little will be done with her; that first glimpse contains everything we’re given to laugh at through every one of her appearances.

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The Devil in the Details: “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus”

A rickety wedge of a gypsy wagon with walls a couple of stories high wobbles through modern London streets, pulled by a couple of tired horses and carrying a tired old souse playing out the role of the carny showman on pure instinct. These traveling players could have ridden right out of the medieval era on the cobblestone streets that have brought them to the waterfront pub where a rowdy bloke decides to have a little fun with these threadbare dandies, especially the succulent young moonfaced beauty (Lily Cole) he chases through the stage mirror that, like Alice before him, takes him into another world, but this is one dreamscape he’s not prepared to handle. Though it’s not exactly explained, the Imaginarium apparently offers those who step through the mylar gates visions of their own dreams, desires and creative will, but only those who do so with open minds and hearts. This bloke, barreling through with no good on his mind, isn’t coming back. “Gone,” sighs Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) with a weary resignation. “Will we miss him? I don’t think so.”

Step right up to the Imaginarium
Step right up to the Imaginarium

You can see Plummer’s Dr. Parnassus as an alter-ego for writer/director Terry Gilliam, a steampunk fantasist trying to jump-start the imaginations of a modern world with his own little theatrical spectacles cobbled together from age-old theatrical conventions and a magical device called The Imaginarium, which quite literally is a door into the imagination. (The Imaginarium is also Gilliam’s first embrace of CGI as a primary tool for creating images onscreen; like any tool, both are only as good as the mind behind it, or inside it, as the case may be.) His motivations are never fully explained, nor are his wagers with the dapper Mr. Nick (Tom Waits, with a pencil mustache and a wicked smile), the devil to his Doctor Faustus. Plummer brings a mix of dignity and degradation to Parnassus, a man whose pride and hubris has been brought low after centuries of immortality. He’s an impotent God who has given up on everything except his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), which only exacerbates his self-pity. Her soul was wagered to the devil long ago and it comes due on her sixteenth birthday, just days away. So Mr. Nick offers him another wager, and Parnassus plays for the soul of his daughter.

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Review: The Life of Brian

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Ordinarily, nothing would be further from the point about Monty Python’s Life of Brian than the film’s reverence or lack of same toward the Christian faith. But with the film widely condemned, and even cancelled, on the basis of “blasphemy” and “sacrilege,” the issue becomes germane. Personally, I’ve been at a loss to find any such attitudes evident in the film, and have had to conclude that those who condemn it haven’t seen it, or didn’t know what they were looking at when they did. True enough, The Life of Brian inverts the Judaeo-Christian tradition by depicting the Romans as civilized and sophisticated, the Hebrews as hopelessly confused, uneducated, sloppy, and vicious. But the Romans come in for their share of jabs, too, in a series of gags based mainly on speech defects, physical handicaps, and sexual proclivities. This portrayal of the Romans seems broadly influenced by the popular BBC dramatization of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius—and far from being a parenthetical observation, that is precisely the point about The Life of Brian: it isn’t spoofing religion, it’s spoofing a genre.

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