Skip to main content

Does he have the squirrels in the attic?

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Well, at least he didn’t starve a horse to death this time. It took Terry Gilliam almost twenty years to remount The Man Who Killed Don Quixote following its initial disintegration, in which time original player Johnny Depp’s movie star career exploded then imploded, and original Quixote Jean Rochefort passed away (as a horse lover, Rochefort was understandably most upset about the equine; still, he gets an “in memory of”, along with intended replacement John Hurt). Gilliam managed to make four movies in between, none of which had anything approaching the kind of raves of his early efforts (several were outright slated) and his career seemed ever cooler and pet projects less attractive to financiers. Fortunately, Amazon finally came knocking. And then, less fortunately, they exited (while the budget fell to half that of the original, without factoring in inflation). The film still isn’t officially released in Britain, thanks to the rights tribulations surrounding the involvement of one-time producer Paul Branco, but where there would once have been excitement about whatever Terry had in store, there’s now a general sense that it simply isn’t worth the wait. Somewhere during those rewrites and shifting casts, Gilliam let his film escape him. Or maybe The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was never entirely there in the first place.

I’m a Gilliam apologist (although maybe not regarding the poor horse), and would count The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in particular (with which this bears some similarities), as one of my all-time favourite films (if not theall-time favourite), but I’m hard pressed to find more than moderate pleasures in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Like everything post The Brothers Grimm (in particular Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) it’s prone to indulgence. Not in the glorious Gilliam sense of unfettered imagination, but rather in that it’s in desperate need of an editor who can set him straight (Lesley Walker, one of the two credited here, has been working with him as far back as The Fisher King, so perhaps indulges his worst instincts). The picture sprawls in ungainly fashion, eschewing clear narrative and character direction and as a consequence comes across as one long digression.

The reworked premise whereby protagonist Toby (Adam Driver) is now in advertising (rather than the original marketing executive), directing a commercial featuring Don Quixote in echo of a piece he made ten years earlier (“I made it a long time ago. It was my graduation film. It won awards”) is instructive in that it’s needless involved and unwieldy, giving rise to haphazard flashbacks that lack effective transitions or differentiations even before the film has properly started. There’s an intentionally autobiographical hue to this, which incorporates Toby having to face up to the ramifications of past decisions involving the student project; when he and Tony Grisoni revised the script, Gilliam outlined that “... the effect it had on many people wasn’t very nice. Some people go mad, some people turn to drink, some people become whores”. Unfortunately, this element never feels very serviceable; shoemaker Javier (Jonathan Pryce) was picked to pay Quixote but lost his mind, while in an unwisely Woody Allen-esque reflection of a director’s attraction to a (then) fifteen-year-old, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has left her small village and become a “whore” (model and escort).

Toby hooks up with Javier/Quixote, whose flights of fantasy recall and invoke both Brazil and The Fisher King in their melding of reality with subjectivity, taking in the inevitable tilting at windmills, and soon “Sancho” is beginning to show indications of the same bug (a village that retreats to the seventeenth century, a stash of gold coins revealed as washers; these are nice touches, but ultimately rather fruitless in a picture pitched at one exaggerated level – and when I say exaggerated, I mean in a scatty, disorganised way, rather than the controlled, aspirational lunacy of his early films). Simultaneously, he is trying to extract Angelica from her service to Jordi Molla’s oligarch Miiskin (whom Toby’s boss, Stellan Skarsgard is attempting to do a deal with).

The picture is, relatively, more focussed once Toby and Javier arrive at Miiskin’s castle, and Gilliam is at his most effective when foregrounding the collaboration between fantasy and reality, with the props and mechanics of Quixote’s performance in the court and the illusion of Angelica being burnt alive (again, this echoes Baron Munchausen’s stage show). The problem is, when you throw in self-conscious exchanges like “Try to keep up with the plot”: “There’s a plot?”, you’re inviting agreement rather than applause for modest wit. There’s a sense that Gilliam can’t really see that story any more, in any kind of linear fashion.

Worse, his characters fail to come alive, and you certainly don’t care for them. Driver is good, but he’s too bashed and buffeted by the Gilliam free-for-all to make anything significant from the Toby role. Quixote/Javier isn’t a character, merely a cypher, so there’s no opportunity to feel anything for him or about him, up to and including his titular death scene (compare and contrast with Baron Munchausen, larger than life but given to fits of melancholy and despair). Olga Kurylenko is clearly enjoying the opportunity to dig in to the temptress stereotype (as Skarsgard’s wife) but Ribeiro’s muse is entirely forgettable (despite “becoming” Panza at the end).

Ah yes. The end works on paper as a neat loop/passing on of the Quixote legacy, but fails to translate on screen. It simply has no impact. Comparisons to Gilliam’s other work are thus inevitable, but only negatives tend to come to mind. Don Quixote smacks of the unstructured, aimless fantasy of Tideland in tandem with Brazil’s retreat into a comforting world of make believe. That film called a harsh full stop on such ventures, of course, whereas Munchausen concluded in triumph; Don Quixote offers neither. Toby assuming the mantle here is more of a shrug, but then the entire film is something of a shrug.

This was Gilliam’s first film shot on digital, and it looks it for the most part. While Nicola Peroni has done good work with the director, I can’t help think that sticking to one cinematographer for too long can breed lethargy of vision. It’s undoubtedly happened to Spielberg, and while Peroni did great work on his first couple of collaborations with Gilliam, his last few have definitely been less remarkable. You also feel the lack of budget, that the limitation has both constrained its director and caused him to become more liberal with the elements he cancontrol, namely running time. But I’m doubtful, given all the money in the world, he’d have made Don Quixote more coherent. It has the same kind of ramshackle, intermittent energy as Parnassus (a film I really like) but endeavours to try the patience with it, in the wilfully distracted manner of Tideland.

One might hope this would be a palate cleanser for Gilliam, finally exorcising himself of the spectre that has haunted him for two decades. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is intermittently effective (I love the irreverent “We don’t need these. We understand each other perfectly” as Toby sweeps the subtitles off the screen, and Toby in a passionate kiss with a goat), but it’s the work of someone trying to summon enthusiasm for material that’s long since burned out, and along the way has second-guessed himself and convinced himself to settle for second best in numerous areas. Sadly, it’s difficult not to conclude that the director’s best days are long behind him, and that at 78 (yeah, a decade younger than Clint, but how many good movies has hemade lately?), he may just keep on recycling old projects – a TV Defective Detective has been mooted – rather than become genuinely inspired and enthused by something again.






Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Welcome to the future. Life is good. But it can be better.

20 to See in 2020
Not all of these movies may find a release date in 2020, given Hollywood’s propensity for shunting around in the schedules along with the vagaries of post-production. Of my 21 to See in 2019, there’s still Fonzo, Benedetta, You Should Have Left, Boss Level and the scared-from-its-alloted-date The Hunt yet to see the light of day. I’ve re-included The French Dispatch here, however. I've yet to see Serenity and The Dead Don’t Die. Of the rest, none were wholly rewarding. Netflix gave us some disappointments, both low profile (Velvet Buzzsaw, In the Shadow of the Moon) and high (The Irishman), and a number of blockbusters underwhelmed to a greater or lesser extent (Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Terminator: Dark Fate, Gemini Man, Star Wars: The Rise of the Skywalker). Others (Knives Out, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) were interesting but flawed. Even the more potentially out there (Joker, Us, Glass, Rocketman) couldn…

It’s like an angry white man’s basement in here.

Bad Boys for Life (2020)
(SPOILERS) The reviews for Bad Boys for Life have, perhaps surprisingly, skewed positive, given that it seemed exactly the kind of beleaguered sequel to get slaughtered by critics. Particularly so since, while it’s a pleasure to see Will Smith and Martin Lawrence back together as Mike and Marcus, the attempts to validate this third outing as a more mature, reflective take on their buddy cops is somewhat overstated. Indeed, those moments of reflection or taking stock arguably tend to make the movie as a whole that much glibber, swiftly succeeded as they are by lashings of gleeful ultra-violence or humorous shtick. Under Michael Bay, who didn’t know the definition of a lull, these pictures scorned any opportunity to pause long enough to assess the damage, and were healthier, so to speak, for that. Without him, Bad Boys for Life’s beats often skew closer to standard 90s action fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

How many galoshes died to make that little number?

Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
(SPOILERS) Looney Tunes: Back in Action proved a far from joyful experience for director Joe Dante, who referred to the production as the longest year-and-a-half of his life. He had to deal with a studio that – insanely – didn’t know their most beloved characters and didn’t know what they wanted, except that they didn’t like what they saw. Nevertheless, despite Dante’s personal dissatisfaction with the finished picture, there’s much to enjoy in his “anti-Space Jam”. Undoubtedly, at times his criticism that it’s “the kind of movie that I don’t like” is valid, moving as it does so hyperactively that its already gone on to the next thing by the time you’ve realised you don’t like what you’re seeing at any given moment. But the flipside of this downside is, there’s more than enough of the movie Dante was trying to make, where you do like what you’re seeing.

Dante commented of Larry Doyle’s screenplay (as interviewed in Joe Dante, edited by Nil Baskar and G…

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …