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Terry Gilliam

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Paths of Terry.

“Not quite an epiphany, but there was ‘Paths of Glory.’…It was two things: first here was technology that I’d never been aware of, the tracking shots through the trenches which of course I copied in ‘Brazil,’ but I’d never been aware of the camera before that film and the second thing was that you talk about injustice in the film, you could talk about big themes, ideas.”

As part of series over at IndieWire, Terry Gilliam discusses his life in eight movies. “That was my problem at a certain age…I still believed in movies in those days. I don’t anymore. Give me a drive-in now any day.”

The Hardbender Theorem.

“The problem to me is, yes, it’s hard to get the money because even though I’m making films with no money, they still want Johnny [Depp] or Brad [Pitt] in it. It’s stupid, it’s ridiculous. The new phrase that’s floating around is you need a ‘hard-bender’ if you’re doing a film of a certain size. A ‘hard-bender’ is one with either Tom Hardy or Michael Fassbender and it never stops, it always astonishes me.”

With The Zero Theorem in the can — a trailer of sorts is hereIndiewire checks in with Terry Gilliam on the state of the business. “It’s so immediate now, there’s very little long-term thinking. I mean, Johnny [Depp] is one of the few who can keep making films that are somehow less successful and still end up on people’s lists.”

Return I Will, to Old Brazil.

“An opening title card declares that Brazil takes place ‘somewhere in the 20th century,’ but the date and location are deliberately muddy; it’s a dystopian world built from a mishmash of eras, part future and part past. Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce) is a competent, content functionary in a world ruled by a hideously broken bureaucracy, under assault by unknown terrorists, and compensating with kidnapping and torture…in Brazil, over and over again, people turn to fantasy to let them briefly step outside a junky, dysfunctional world controlled by an oppressive yet strikingly indifferent government.”

“Sometimes, madness is the right response to a mad world. Sometimes, illusion is the only way out.” By way of a longtime reader, The Keynote‘s Tasha Robinson discusses the origins and greatness of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, one of my trifecta of all-time favorite films (along with Amadeus and Miller’s Crossing) and at least partly the namesake of GitM (Ere I am, JH…) — I got the still above signed at a Gilliam event in NYC in October 2006. Some great stuff in here — I actually never knew, or had forgotten, how close this came to being a Tom Cruise vehicle — That would’ve been a error of Tuttle/Buttle proportions. Da dum, da da da da da dee dum

Mighty Ray Young.

Harryhausen’s fascination with animated models began when he first saw Willis O’Brien’s creations in KING KONG with his boyhood friend, the author Ray Bradbury in 1933, and he made his first foray into filmmaking in 1935 with home-movies that featured his youthful attempts at model animation.”

“Ray has been a great inspiration to us all in special visual industry. The art of his earlier films, which most of us grew up on, inspired us so much.” “Without Ray Harryhausen, there would likely have been no STAR WARS” — George Lucas.

“THE LORD OF THE RINGS is my ‘Ray Harryhausen movie.’ Without his life-long love of his wondrous images and storytelling it would never have been made – not by me at least.” — Peter Jackson

“What we do now digitally with computers, Ray did digitally long before but without computers. Only with his digits.” — Terry Gilliam.

“I think all of us who are practioners in the arts of science fiction and fantasy movies now all feel that we’re standing on the shoulders of a giant. If not for Ray’s contribution to the collective dreamscape, we wouldn’t be who we are.” — James Cameron

The Master stops motion: R.I.P. Ray Harryhausen, 1920-2013.

Return I will to old Brazil.

“Christoph Waltz [plays] Qohen Leth, a computer programmer toiling to understand the meaning of existence. However, surrounded by ‘mancams’ that report all unusual actions back to the shadowy corporate authority known as the Management, Leth finds his efforts repeatedly interrupted by distractions, including a teenager and a lusty love interest.”

Back at work in the fields of dystopia that brought forth Brazil and 12 Monkeys — and even as Johnny Depp opts for his own Quixote project after all these years — Terry Gilliam is apparently hard a work on his next project, currently being filmed: The Zero Theorem. “David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton, and Matt Damon will co-star.”

The High-Water Mark.


And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.”

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Craft of the Python.


All you lazy people out there who want to get maximum effect from minimum work, I want you to meet the arch-idler of all time, Terry “Python” Gilliam!” Via the Twitter machine, Terry Gilliam, circa 1974, explains the craft of cut-out animation. “The problem when you’re doing cutouts is to be totally aware of the limitations…I’m always accused of doing violent things, well, it’s because of the nature of cut-outs.

Quixote v. Kenobi.

‘Robert Duvall is one of the greats, no question – and he can ride a horse!’ laughed Gilliam. ‘And Ewan has gotten better over the years. He was wonderful in The Ghost. There’s a lot of colours to Ewan that he’s not been showing recently and it’s time for him to show them again. He’s got a great sense of humour and he’s a wonderful actor. He’s wonderfully boyish and can be charming – when he flashes a smile, everybody melts. He wields it like a nuclear bomb!

While currently busy with The Damnation of Faust for the English National Opera, Terry Gilliam reveals he has a cast ready for his second attempt at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: Robert Duvall and Ewan MacGregor, in the Jean Rochefort (Quixote) and Johnny Depp roles respectively. Shooting begins this September.

Unfinished Symphony.

The second installment of Friday’s triple-threat, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is an often meandering, occasionally magnificent beauty, and a film that I expect will satisfy Gilliam fans, and those with a tolerance for his indulgences, more than it does people just looking to take in Heath Ledger’s last curtain call.

To be honest, this motley extravaganza ends up running a bit too long. And Parnassus is a ragged carnival at that, becoming more inchoate as it spins its wheels. Plus, Ledger’s final performance, alas, is mostly just set-up without the follow-through — Other actors play the meat of the character. Still, despite the movie’s very visible faults, Imaginarium nonetheless feels like a loving throwback to the days of Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination,” particularly Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. (In fact, Gilliam now argues that this film replaces Brazil in that trilogy.) And, if, like me, you have any fondness for the old-school, crazy-cartoonist, anything-can-happen Gilliam, Imaginarium is a very worthwhile experience nonetheless.

True, Parnassus is nowhere near as good or as perfectly formed as Brazil, which remains Gilliam”s magnum opus. (Although one reason this movie may have that “classic” Gilliam feel to it is the presence of co-screenwriter Charles McKeown, who helped pen Brazil and Munchausen, and appeared in the former as “Harvey Lime,” Sam Lowry’s desk-mate.) Nor is it as taut and self-contained as the three quality entrants in Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Americana” — The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. All that being said, Parnassus is the best movie Gilliam has made in over a decade, and it definitely allows him the chance to let his freak flag fly.

For Imaginarium centers on a portal — a magic mirror — that keeps leading into a “world of pure imagination,” one that bears some unmistakable glimmers of the old Monty Python scrapbook-cartoons. Kept in the possession of an immortal sage named Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer, in the plummiest (Plummiest?) role he’s had in years), this mirror has been used as a field of not-so-friendly wagering between he and the Devil (Tom Waits, a casting coup) for thousands of years. Through this garden of Gilliamesque delights wander the unknowing souls who happen upon Dr. Parnassus’ roadshow and walk through the mirror. And, more often than not — people being people — they make lousy decisions and end up in the bad company of Old Nick.

Now, thanks to another ill-advised bet with the Devil, the eternal soul of Parnassus’ only daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole), is at stake. And, given that this good Doctor only has two allies in the world — Percy, his diminutive and long-suffering #2 (Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer), and a young orphan lad named Anton (Andrew Garfield) — it doesn’t look like there’s much help on the horizon. (Troyer, by the way, [a] cannot act worth a damn and [b] seems game for pretty much anything. But Garfield is really good. I kept thinking “Who is this guy? he’s solid” throughout. And, unlike Sam Worthington, he actually seems deserving of some of the Next-Big-Thing hype he’s getting right now.)

Anyway, as the tarot cards predicted, Dr. Parnassus’ troupe encounters a hanged man underneath a bridge (Ledger — yes, this intro is more than a bit eerie now.) Once revived, this fellow — Tony, formerly a charity organizer who ran into trouble — is something of an X-Factor in the age-old battle between Parnassus and the Devil. Whose side is he on? Well, as it turns out, he’s on Tony’s side. And, once he gets wind of the mirror, and the world that lies on the other side, he finds himself contemplating, almost despite himself, how he might best take advantage of the situation…

So, the elephant in the room — Heath Ledger. As it turns out, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus represents both an amazing stroke of luck and a mild disappointment. The stroke of luck is that very few stories out there could accommodate Ledger’s unfinished turn as well as this one. Here, the fact that Tony’s appearance changes every time he steps into the mirror-world — he becomes Johnny Depp, Jude Law, or Colin Farrell — feels almost intuitive and organic, as if it could have been written this way in the first place. But that being said, most of Tony’s major character-beats happen in the mirrorverse, and so Ledger’s role in “our” world — which is mostly just set-up — feels unfinished all-the-same.

In fact, “unfinished” is a good way to sum up both the weaknesses and the strengths of Imaginarium. About 20 minutes in and after several early mirror-world reveries, right as we venture into the past to witness the Doctor’s first Faustian wager, I was thinking this was turning out to be easily one of Gilliam’s best films. But the movie loses its way in the muddled middle going, and by the time, late in the show, when Valentina dances with the Devil in the pale mirrorlight, I had sorta emotionally checked out of Parnassus. (Even then, it’s still fun to watch random items well up from Gilliam’s mindscape — say, the upscale shopping mall and dowdy, pearl-clutching madam of Brazil (“My complication had a little complication“), or the fantasy-on-the-social-fringes aspects of The Fisher King. There’s even a random musical number — sung by policemen in fishnets, no less — which just about screams Monty Python.

So, yes, Ledger’s performance seems only half-there, and the rambling story at hand could’ve probably done with some screw-tightening. But, Imaginarium also feels “unfinished” in a happier sense. Whether this was a strange example of kismet or the script was tinkered with after Ledger’s passing, several of the scenes — most notably Johnny Depp’s — seem to comment directly in tribute to the fallen actor. (“Nothing is permanent, not even death.“)

And in a sense, the whole movie works like that too. As we find out in flashback, Dr. Parnassus once headed a devout order of shamans committed to the Tinkerbellish proposition that, so long as somebody was telling a story, the universe would always continue to exist. Similarly, so long as people keep watching The Dark Knight or The Patriot, I’m Not There or Brokeback Mountain, Ten Things I Hate About You, or, yes, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, so too will Heath Ledger.

A Taste for the Theatrical.

A big one I missed the other day (found on Vanity Fair): The trailer for Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is now online, with Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, and, in his final performance, Heath Ledger (abetted by Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.) Wow. Looks more Gilliamesque than anything Terry’s done in years.

Patience of the Mule.

Brazil‘ is the one that will probably be stamped on my grave because that on seemed to have made a big effect on a lot of people. And that’s all I’m trying to do is affect people.” CNN talks briefly with Terry Gilliam on Heath Ledger’s passing, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and sundry other topics. “Talent is less important in filmmaking than patience. If you really want your films to say something that you hope is unique, then patience and stamina, thick skin and a kind of stupidity. A mule-like stupidity is what you really need.

Tilting at Windmills Anew.

There’s no escaping some pacts. Nearly ten years on I find myself lending a hand to get that crazed, giggling bedlamite back in the saddle. I’m talking about Don Quixote. In spite of God and the Devil, he shall ride again!” With The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus in the can and at Cannes, the inimitable Terry Gilliam sets his sights on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote once more. Here’s hoping try #2 doesn’t get Lost in La Mancha.

We are Heath Ledger.

Soon after Heath Ledger’s untimely death (ultimately ruled an accident) a few weeks ago, there was a rumor floating around that Johnny Depp would step in to save Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus by playing the “mirror-world” Heath. (“There is a point in the film when Heath falls through a magic mirror. He could change into another character after that and that is where Johnny would come in.“) As it turns out, the truth is even more interesting. According to AICN, Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell have all signed on for Imaginarium to pay tribute to Ledger and to help salvage his final performance. All class acts…here’s hoping Gilliam can make something special out of Ledger’s final bow.

From one actor to another.

“I feel very unsettled at the moment…It seems somehow strange to be talking about anything else. Not that there’s anything to say really except to express one’s regret and to say from the bottom of one’s heart to his family and to his friends that I’m sorry for their trouble.Daniel Day-Lewis pays an emotional tribute to Heath Ledger. [Story.]

In related news, some reports indicate Johnny Depp, of the previously sidelined The Man who Killed Don Quixote, may be asked by Terry Gilliam to finish Ledger’s work on Imaginarium. “There is a point in the film when Heath falls through a magic mirror. He could change into another character after that and that is where Johnny would come in. It’s a weird, fantasy, time-travel movie so Heath’s character could easily change appearance. It would be a poignant moment. Johnny’s not working at the moment so everyone is praying he will do it.

Update: Daniel Day-Lewis dedicates his SAG award to Heath Ledger.

Parnassus Passes.

Who knows what Faustian bargain he made this time, but Terry Gilliam’s Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is happily off the ground, and will begin shooting next month. (The script leaked last March.) Imaginarium will star Christopher Plummer (as the titular doctor), Heath Ledger, Verne Troyer, and, in a choice bit of casting, Tom Waits as the Devil.

Twenty-Five for Fanboys.

EW lists the top 25 sci-fi offerings (in tv and film) of the past twenty-five years. Pretty arbitrary, really, but it includes Brazil (at #6), BSG (at #2 — these two should have switched places), Children of Men (#14), Eternal Sunshine (#17 — same problem), Aliens (#9), The Thing (#10), The X-Files (#4), Galaxy Quest (#24), and Blade Runner (#3), so it’s by no means a bad list. (Both Lost and Heroes should be replaced, however.) Just from what’s missing above, you can probably guess #1…can’t you, Mr. Anderson?

The Imaginarium of Dr. Gilliam.

FilmIck.com publishes a long and very spoilerish review of a new Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown script, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. What with dwarves, dreams, and traveling circuses, this sounds right in their wheelhouse.

Jack Lint, Everyman?

“Gilliam came nearest to inventing his own country with Brazil (1985), one of the key political films of the late 20th century. Brazil is one of the great political films, an extraordinary mixture of Fellini and Kafka, with a complex force of synthesized images, which belongs to Gilliam alone.” In Slate, critic Clive James assesses Brazil‘s take on torture, and what Michael Palin’s Jack Lint does and doesn’t tell us about the men usually holding the implements.

2006 (Finally) in Film.

Well, there are still a number of flicks I haven’t yet seen — David Lynch’s Inland Empire, for example, which I hope to hit up this weekend. But as the Oscar nods were announced today, and as the few remaining forlorn Christmas trees are finally being picked up off the sidewalk, now seems the last appropriate time to crank out my much belated end-of-2006 film list (originally put off to give me time to make up for my New Zealand sojourn.) To be honest, I might’ve written this list a few weeks earlier, had it not happened that I ended up seeing the best film of 2005 in mid-January of last year, thus rendering the 2005 list almost immediately obsolescent. But, we’ll get to that — As it stands, 2006 was a decent year in movies (in fact a better year in film than it was in life, the midterms notwithstanding), with a crop of memorable genre flicks and a few surprisingly worthy comebacks. And, for what it’s worth, I thought the best film released in 2006 was…

Top 20 Films of 2006

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005]

1. United 93: A movie I originally had no interest in seeing, Paul Greengrass’s harrowing docudrama of the fourth flight on September 11 captured the visceral shock of that dark day without once veering into exploitation or sentimentality (the latter the curse of Oliver Stone’s much inferior World Trade Center.) While 9/11 films of the future might offer more perspective on the origins and politics of those horrible hours, it’s hard to imagine a more gripping or humane film emerging anytime soon about the day’s immediate events. A tragic triumph, United 93 is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking.

[1.] The New World (2005): A movie which seemed to divide audiences strongly, Terence Malick’s The New World was, to my mind, a masterpiece. I found it transporting in ways films seldom are these days, and Jamestown a much richer canvas for Malick’s unique gifts than, say, Guadalcanal. As the director’s best reimagining yet of the fall of Eden, The New World marvelously captured the stark beauty and sublime strangeness of two worlds — be they empires, enemies, or lovers — colliding, before any middle ground can be established. For its languid images of Virginia woodlands as much as moments like Wes Studi awestruck by the rigid dominion over nature inherent in English gardens, The New World goes down as a much-overlooked cinematic marvel, and (sorry, Syriana) the best film of 2005.

2. Letters from Iwo Jima: Having thought less of Flags of our Fathers and the woeful Million Dollar Baby than most people, I was almost completely thrown by the dismal grandeur and relentless gloom of Eastwood’s work here. To some extent the Unforgiven of war movies, Iwo Jima is a bleakly rendered siege film that trafficks in few of the usual tropes of the genre. (Don’t worry — I suspect we’ll get those in spades in two months in 300.) Instead of glorious Alamo-style platitudes, we’re left only with the sight of young men — all avowed enemies of America, no less — swallowed up and crushed in the maelstrom of modern combat. From Ken Watanabe’s commanding performance as a captain going down with the ship to Eastwood’s melancholy score, Letters works to reveal one fundamental, haunting truth: Tyrants may be toppled, nations may be liberated, and Pvt. Ryans may be saved, but even “good wars” are ultimately Hell on earth for those expected to do the fighting.

3. Children of Men: In the weeks since I first saw this film, my irritation with the last fifteen minutes or so has diminished, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men has emerged for what it is — one of the most resonant “near-future” dystopias to come down the pike in a very long while, perhaps since (the still significantly better) Brazil. Crammed with excellent performances by Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, Children is perhaps a loosely-connected grab bag of contemporary anxieties and afflictions (terrorism, detainment camps, pharmaceutical ads, celebrity culture). But it’s assuredly an effective one, with some of the most memorable and naturalistic combat footage seen in several years to boot. I just wished they’d called that ship something else…

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: True, the frighteningly talented Sasha Baron Cohen spends a lot of time in this movie shooting fish in a barrel, and I wish he’d spent a little more time eviscerating subtler flaws in the American character than just knuckle-dragging racists and fratboy sexists. Still, the journeys of Borat Sagdiyev through the Bible Buckle and beyond made for far and away the funniest movie of the year. Verry nice.

5. The Prestige: I originally had this in Children of Men‘s spot, as there are few films I enjoyed as much this year as Christopher Nolan’s sinister sleight-of hand. But, even after bouncing Children up for degree of difficulty, that should take nothing away from The Prestige, a seamlessly made genre film about the rivalries and perils of turn-of-the-century prestidigitation. (There seems to be a back-and-forth between fans of this film and The Illusionist, which I sorta saw on a plane in December. Without sound (which, obviously, is no way to see a movie), Illusionist seemed like an implausible love story set to a tempo of anguished Paul Giamatti reaction shots. In any case, I prefer my magic shows dark and with a twist.) Throw in extended cameos by David Bowie and Andy Serkis — both of which help to mitigate the Johansson factor — and The Prestige was the purest cinematic treat this year for the fanboy nation. Christian Bale in particular does top-notch work here, and I’m very much looking forward to he and Nolan’s run-in with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

6. The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky’s elegiac ode to mortality and devotion was perhaps the most unfairly maligned movie of the year. (In a perfect world, roughly half of the extravagant praise going to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth would have been lavished on this film.) Clearly a heartfelt and deeply personal labor of love, The Fountain — admittedly clunky in his first half hour — was a visually memorable tone poem that reminds us that all things — perhaps especially the most beautiful — are finite, so treasure them while you can.

7. The Queen: A movie I shied away from when it first came out, The Queen is a canny look at contemporary politics anchored by Helen Mirren’s sterling performance as the fastidious, reserved, and ever-so-slightly downcast monarch in question. (Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair is no slouch either.) In fact, The Queen is the type of movie I wish we saw more often: a small, tightly focused film about a very specific moment in recent history. Indeed, between this and United 93, 2006 proved to be a good year for smart and affecting depictions of the very recent past — let’s hope the trend continues through the rest of the oughts.

8. Inside Man: The needless Jodie Foster subplot notwithstanding, Spike Lee’s Inside Man was a fun, expertly-made crime procedural, as good in its own way as the much more heavily-touted Departed. It was also, without wearing it on its sleeve, the film Crash should have been — a savvy look at contemporary race relations that showed there are many more varied and interesting interactions between people of different ethnicities than simply “crashing” into each other. (But perhaps that’s how y’all roll over in car-culture LA.) At any rate, Inside Man is a rousing New York-centric cops-and-robbers pic in the manner of Dog Day Afternoon or The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three, and it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable movie experiences of the year.

9. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Speaking of enjoyable New York-centric movie experiences, Dave Chappelle and Michel Gondry’s block party last year felt like a breath of pure spring air after a long, cold, lonely winter — time to kick off the sweaters and parkas and get to groovin’ with your neighbors. With performances by some of the most innovative and inspired players in current hip-hop (Kanye, Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, Erykah Badu), and presided over by the impish, unsinkable Chappelle, Block Party was one of the best concert films in recent memory, and simply more fun than you can shake a stick at.

10. Casino Royale: Bond is back! Thanks to Daniel Craig’s portrayal of 007 as a blunt, glitched-up human being rather than a Casanova Superspy, and a script that eschewed the UV laser pens and time-release exploding cufflinks of Bonds past for more hard-boiled and gritty fodder, Casino Royale felt straight from the pen of Ian Fleming, and newer and more exciting than any 007 movie in decades.

11. The Departed: A very good movie brimming over with quality acting (notably Damon and Di Caprio) and support work — from Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, and others — Scorsese’s The Departed also felt a bit too derivative of its splendid source material, Infernal Affairs, to merit the top ten. And then there’s the Jack problem: An egregiously over-the-top Nicholson chews so much scenery here that it’s a wonder there’s any of downtown Boston left standing. But, despite these flaws, The Departed is well worth seeing, and if it finally gets Scorsese his Best Director Oscar (despite Greengrass deserving it), it won’t be too much of an outrage.

[11.] Toto The Hero (1991): Also sidelined out of this top twenty on account of its release date, Jaco Von Dormael’s Toto the Hero — Terry Gilliam’s choice of screening for an IFC Movie Night early in October — is definitely one for the Netflix queue, particularly if you’re a fan of Gilliam’s oeuvre. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age/going-of-age tale that includes thoughts of envy, murder, incest, and despair, all the while remaining somehow whimsical and fantastical at its core. (And, trust me: As with Ary Borroso’s “Brazil“, you’ll be left humming Charles Trenet’s “Boum” to yourself long after the movie is over.)

12. Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: I guess this is where I should be writing something brief and scintillating about Michael Winterbottom’s metanarrative version of Laurence Sterne’s famous novel, one which gives Steve Coogan — and the less well-known Rob Brydon — a superlative chance to work their unique brand of comedic mojo. But I’m growing distracted and Berk has that pleading “I-want-to-go-out, are-you-done-yet” look and Kevin’s still only on Number 12 of a list that, for all intent and purposes, is three weeks late and will be read by all of eight people anyway. (But don’t tell him that — In fact, I shouldn’t even talk about him behind his back.) So, perhaps we’ll come back to this later…it’s definitely a review worth writing (again), if I could just figure out how to start.

13. Miami Vice: Michael Mann’s moody reimagining of the TV show that made him famous isn’t necessarily his best work, but it was one of the more unique and absorbing movies of the summer, and one that lingers in the memory long after much of the year’s fluffier and more traditional films have evaporated. Dr. Johnson (and Hunter Thompson) once wrote that “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I guess that’s what Crockett and Tubbs are going for with the nightclubs and needle boats.

14. CSA: The Confederate States of America: I wish I were in the land of cotton…or have we been there all along? Kevin Wilmott’s alternate history of a victorious Confederate America is a savvy and hilarious send-up of history documentaries and a sharp-witted, sharp-elbowed piece of satire with truths to tell about the shadow of slavery in our past. With any luck, CSA will rise again on the DVD circuit.

15. The Science of Sleep: Not as good or as universally applicable as his Eternal Sunshine (the best film of 2004), Michel Gondry’s dreamlike, unabashedly romantic The Science of Sleep is still a worthy inquiry into matters of the (broken) heart. What is it about new love that is so intoxicating? And why do the significant others in our mind continue to haunt us so, even when they bear such little relation to the people they initially represented? Science doesn’t answer these crucial questions (how can it?), but it does acutely diagnose the condition. When it comes to relationships, Sleep suggests, all we have to do — sometimes all we can do, despite ourselves — is dream.

16. Rocky Balboa: Rocky! Rocky! Rocky! I’m as surprised as anyone that Sly’s sixth outing as Philadelphia’s prized pugilist made the top twenty. But, as formulaic as it is, Rocky Balboa delivered the goods like a Ivan Drago right cross. Ultimately not quite as enjoyable as Bond’s return to the service, Rocky Balboa still made for a commendable final round for the Italian Stallion. And, if nothing else, he went down fighting.

17. Pan’s Labyrinth: A fantasy-horror flick occurring simultaneously within a Spanish Civil War film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth ultimately felt to me like less than the sum of its parts. But if the plaudits it’s receiving help to mainstream other genre movies in critics’ eyes in the future, I’m all for it. It’s an ok movie, no doubt, but if you’re looking for to see one quality supernatural-historical tale of twentieth-century Spain, rent del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone instead.

18. Little Miss Sunshine: Another film which I think is being way overpraised, Little Miss Sunshine is still a moderately enjoyable evening at the movies. It felt overscripted and television-ish to me, and I wish it was as way over yonder in the minor key as it pretends to be, but Sunshine is nevertheless a cute little IFC-style family film, and one that does have a pretty funny payoff at the end.

19. The Last King of Scotland: I just wrote on this one yesterday, so my impressions haven’t changed much. Still, Forrest Whitaker’s jovial and fearsome Idi Amin, and an almost-equally-good performance by James McAvoy as the dissolute young Scot who unwittingly becomes his minion, makes The Last King of Scotland worth seeing, if you can bear its grisly third act.

20. Thank You for Smoking: It showed flashes of promise, and it was all there on paper, in the form of Chris Buckley’s book. But Smoking, alas, never really lives up to its potential. What Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005′s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire, to my mind. But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda. Still, pleasant enough, if you don’t consider the opportunity cost.

Most Disappointing: All the King’s Men, X3: The Last Stand — Both, unfortunately, terrible.

Worth a Rental: A Scanner Darkly, Brick, Cache, Cars, Curse of the Golden Flower, Glory Road, The History Boys, Marie Antoinette, Match Point (2005), V for Vendetta, Why We Fight

Don’t Bother: Bobby, Crash (2005), The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Mission: Impossible: III, Night Watch (2004), Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Men’s Chest, Poseidon, Scoop, Superman Returns, The Wicker Man, World Trade Center

Best Actor: Clive Owen, Children of Men; Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen; Q’Orianka Kilcher, The New World
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed; Michael Caine, Children of Men/The Prestige
Best Supporting Actress: Pam Farris, Children of Men; Vera Farmiga, The Departed; Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth

Unseen: Apocalypto, Babel, Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, Clerks II, The Descent, The Devil Wears Prada, Dreamgirls, Fast Food Nation, Hollywoodland, An Inconvenient Truth, Infamous, Inland Empire, Jackass Number Two, Jet Li’s Fearless, Lassie, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, The Notorious Betty Page, A Prairie Home Companion, The Pursuit of Happyness, Running With Scissors, Sherrybaby, Shortbus, Stranger than Fiction, Tideland, Venus, Volver, Wordplay

2007: The list isn’t looking all that great, to be honest. But, perhaps we’ll find some gems in here…: 300, 3:10 To Yuma, Beowulf, Black Snake Moan, The Bourne Ultimatum, FF2, The Golden Age: Elizabeth II, The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hot Fuzz, I Am Legend, Live Free or Die Hard, Ocean’s Thirteen, PotC3, The Simpsons Movie, Smokin’ Aces, Spiderman 3, Stardust, The Transformers, Zodiac.

Terry le Heros.

As longtime readers might know (or might’ve adduced from some of the site banners above), I’ve always been a big Terry Gilliam fan, and will pony up for films considerably worse than The Brothers Grimm to repay the man for making Time Bandits, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and one my all-time favorite movies, Brazil. (In fact, “Ghost in the Machine” is the name of this site partly for the Brazil reference.) So it was a real treat yesterday when I and a friend from high school got to see Terry Gilliam live in the flesh last night at the IFC Center on 4th St. After making the rounds in front of The Daily Show yesterday afternoon, Gilliam showed up as part of IFC’s Movie Night series, in which a director of some repute screens one of his favorite films. (In fact, he showed up with the sign he’d been lugging around outside all day: “STUDIOLESS DIRECTOR — FAMILY TO SUPPORT — WILL DIRECT FOR FOOD”) Apparently, Gilliam had wanted to show One-Eyed Jacks, the 1961 western directed by Marlon Brando, but the Brando estate wouldn’t deliver a print or somesuch.

So, the film we got instead was Jaco von Dormael’s Toto le Heros (Toto the Hero), a bizarre Belgian concoction of 1991 that’s part Prince and the Pauper, part Singing Detective, part Citizen Kane and very Gilliamesque. A movie that’s hard-to-explain but that’s definitely worth renting, Toto follows the story of one Thomas van Haserbroeck (Don’t call him van Chickensoup), an imaginative young boy unsettlingly in love with his sister, a lonely man contemplating an affair with a mystery woman, and a deeply depressed senior citizen looking to exact revenge for a life-long grievance. Y’see, Thomas (or Toto, as he’s called in his dream life, where he’s a film noir gumshoe) insists he remembers being switched with another baby — his wealthy next-door neighbor, Albert Kant — during a fire at the hospital, and therein, in his mind, lies the source of most of his troubles. As the story switches back and forth in time, Toto and Albert’s lives keep butting against each other in strange doppelganger fashion, while old-Thomas enacts a plan to reclaim his stolen life…

After the movie, Gilliam returned to the front for a wide-ranging Q&A session, which involved questions both probing (“Did you borrow from Toto in 12 Monkeys?” [No, don't think so.]) and peculiar (“Where’d you buy your shoes? Where’s the worst place you ever spent the night?” [Birkenstocks, some backwater hut in India]) Along the way, Gilliam told tales of first meeting the Python guys, photographing Frank Zappa in 1967, choosing his various directors of photography, and, the battle of Brazil notwithstanding, generally enjoying the constraints of studio heads and limited budgets. (They focus him.) Speaking of which, he also said Good Omens still seems to be moving forward, and Quixote may still happen someday. (He also mentioned The Defective Detective briefly, but it seemed in the past tense.) And these days he’s digging the new Dylan album, as well The Arcade Fire’s Funeral and The Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics.

At one point, he also said he was considering suing Bush, Cheney, et al for making an unauthorized remake of Brazil. With that in mind, I asked him whether his views on Brazil had changed at all now that we’re kinda living it. (I mean, what with Cheney playing Mr. Helpmann, Canadian citizens getting Buttled, and the Dubya team now fully sanctioning Jack Lints, what’s a good Sam Lowry to do, other than await his turn in the chair or on the waterboard?) He noted that, obviously, Brazil-type stuff was going on around the world at the time (in the Soviet bloc, Argentina, etc.) but that he watched the film the other day (to check out the new Criterion HD-DVD version) and was amazed at both how prescient and topical it was.

Throughout, Gilliam was amazingly friendly and personable, and came across a remarkably humble and down-to-earth guy. He kept taking questions well after the IFC-suit tried to close down the affair, and hung around the nearby cafe afterwards to sign various items. I ended up being the second guy in line, and got him to sign the Brazil still above (one of five I have framed in my hallway.) When he asked me my name for the signature, he lit up, “Kevin! Time Bandits Kevin!” I told him I was right around that age when I first saw Time Bandits, and he’s definitely got a lot to answer for.

Terry Does Dick | Prison Break.

Speaking of Philip K. Dick, word on the street is the one and only Terry Gilliam will be heading The Owl in Daylight, a biopic of the author set to star Paul Giamatti in the lead. And, speaking of paranoid sci-fi-ish surveillance thrillers, Christopher Nolan looks set to board The Prisoner, as in a film version of the classic BBC series, after he finishes the Dark Knight.

L for Lowry.

“Nothing better illustrates the simplism of V for Vendetta, or better highlights the unflattering contrast with Brazil, than V’s motto: ‘There are no coincidences.’ The comic beauty of Brazil’s portrait of totalitarianism is that everything rests on random coincidence, which nudges the bureaucracy into its own blind and murderous momentum: A dead fly falls into a computer printer and — voila — poor law-abiding Buttle is mistaken for dangerous subversive Tuttle.” Slate‘s Matt Feeney compares Brazil and V for Vendetta.

2005 in Film.

Happy New Year’s Eve to everyone..I’m celebrating in San Diego with old college friends and likely won’t update again until 2006. So, without further ado, here’s the 2005 movie round-up. Overall, it’s been a pretty solid year for cinema, and this is the first year in the past five where the #1 movie wasn’t immediately obvious to me. But, still, choices had to be made, and so…

Top 20 Films of 2005

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004]

[Note: The #1 movie of 2005 changed in early 2006: See the Best of 2006 list for the update...]

1. Syriana: I know Stephen Gaghan’s grim meditation on the global reach and ruthlessness of the Oil Trade rubbed some people the wrong way, but I found it a gripping piece of 21st century muckraking, in the venerable tradition of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. True, Christopher Plummer was a mite too sinister, but otherwise Syriana offered some of the most intriguing character arcs of the year, from morose CIA Field Agent George Clooney’s ambivalent awakening to corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright’s courtship with compromise. In a year of well-made political films, among them Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich, Lord of War, and The Constant Gardener, Syriana was the pick of the litter.

2. Layer Cake: If X3 turns into the fiasco the fanboy nation is expecting with Brett Ratner at the helm, this expertly-crafted crime noir by Matthew Vaughn will cut that much deeper. Layer Cake not only outdid Guy Ritchie’s brit-gangster oeuvre in wit and elegance and offered great supporting turns by Michael Gambon, Kenneth Cranham, and Colm Meaney, it proved that Daniel Craig had the requisite charisma for Bond and then some (and that Sienna Miller is no slouch in the charisma department either.)

3. Ballets Russes: Penguins and comedians, to the wings — The lively survivors of the Ballets Russes are now on center stage. Like the best in dance itself, this captivating, transporting documentary was at once of the moment and timeless.

4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Conversely, anchored by David Strathairn’s wry channeling of Edward R. Murrow, George Clooney’s second film (and second appearance on the 2005 list) couldn’t have been more timely. A historical film that in other hands might have come off as dry, preachy edutainment, Good Night, and Good Luck instead seemed as fresh and relevant as the evening news…well, that is, if the news still functioned properly.

5. Batman Begins: The Dark Knight has returned. Yes, the samurai-filled first act ran a bit long and the third-act train derailing needed more oomph. Still, WB and DC’s reboot of the latter’s second biggest franchise was the Caped Crusader movie we’ve all been waiting for. With help from an A-list supporting cast and a Gotham City thankfully devoid of Schumacherian statuary, Chris Nolan and Christian Bale brought both Batman and Bruce Wayne to life as never before, and a Killing Joke-ish Batman 2 is now on the top of my want-to-see list.

6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: As I said in my original review, I initally thought Cuaron’s Azkhaban couldn’t be topped. But give Mike Newell credit: Harry’s foray into Voldemortish gloom and teenage angst was easily the most compelling Potter film so far. Extra points to Gryffindor for Brendan Gleeson’s more-than-slightly-bent Mad-Eye Moody, and to Slytherin for Ralph Fiennes’ serpentine cameo as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

7. King Kong: I had this film as high as #2 for awhile, and there are visual marvels therein that no other movie this year came close to offering, most notably Kong loose in Depression-Era New York City. But, there’s no way around it — even given all the B-movie thrills and great-ape-empathizing that PJ offers in the last 120 minutes, the first hour is close to terrible, which has to knock the gorilla down a few notches.

8. Capote: When it comes to amorality for artistry’s sake, Jack Black’s Carl Denham ain’t got nothing on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Truman Capote. I think it’d be awhile before I want to watch this movie again, but, still, it was a dark, memorable trip into bleeding Kansas and the writerly id.

9. Sin City: One of the most faithful comic-to-film adaptations on celluloid also made for one of the more engaging and visually arresting cinematic trips this year. I don’t know if the look and feel of Sin City can sustain a bona fide franchise, but this first outing was a surprisingly worthwhile film experience (with particular kudos for Mickey Rourke’s Marv.)

10. Munich: I wrote about this one at length very recently, so I’ll defer to the original review.

11. Brokeback Mountain: A beautifully shot and beautifully told love story, although admittedly Ang Lee’s staid Brokeback at times feels like transparent Oscar bait.

12. Lord of War: Anchored by Nicholas Cage’s wry voiceover, Andrew Niccol’s sardonic expose of the arms trade was the funniest of this year’s global message films (That is, if you like ‘em served up cold.)

13. The Squid and the Whale: Speaking of which, The Squid and the Whale made ugly, embittered divorce about as funny as ever it’s likely to get, thanks to Jeff Daniels’ turn as the pretentious, haunted Bernard Berkman.

14. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: Thank the Force for small kindnesses: George Lucas put the Star Wars universe to bed with far and away his best outing of the prequels. The film flirts dangerously with the Dark Side, particularly in the “let’s take a meeting” second act, but for the most part Sith felt — finally — like a return to that galaxy long ago and far, far away.

15. A History of Violence: I think David Cronenberg’s most recent take on vigilantism and misplaced identity was slightly overrated by most critics — When you get down to it, the film was pretty straightforward in its doling out of violent fates to those who most deserved them. Still, solid performances and Cronenberg’s mordant humor still made for a far-better-than-average night at the movies.

16. Walk the Line: Despite the great performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line ultimately seemed too much of a by-the-numbers biopic to do the Man in Black full credit. But, definitely worth seeing.

17. In Good Company (2004): Paul Weitz’s sweet folktale of synergy, downsizing, and corporate obsolescence was too charitable and good-natured to think ill of any of its characters, and I usually prefer more mordant fare. Nevertheless, the intelligently-written IGC turned out to be a quality piece of breezy pop filmmaking.

18. The Constant Gardener: Another very good film that I still thought was slightly overrated by the critics, Fernando Meirelles’ sophomore outing skillfully masked its somewhat iffy script with lush cinematography and choice Soderberghian editing.

19. Primer (2004): A completely inscrutable sci-fi tone poem on the perils of time travel. Kevin and I saw it twice and still have very little clue as to what’s going most of the time — but I (we?) mean that in the best way possible.

20. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronic-what? Andrew Adamson’s retelling of C.S. Lewis’s most popular tome lagged in places, and the two older kids were outfitted with unwieldy character arcs that often stopped the film dead, but it still felt surprisingly faithful to the spirit of Narnia, Christianized lion and all.

Most Disappointing: The Fantastic Four, which I finally saw on the plane yesterday — One of Marvel’s A-List properties is given the straight-to-video treatment. From the Mr. Fantastic bathroom humor to the complete evisceration of Dr. Doom, this movie turned out just as uninspired and embarrassing as the trailers suggested. Runner-Up: The Brothers Grimm. Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited return wasn’t exactly a return-to-form. But, hey, at least he got a movie made, and Tideland is just around the corner.

Most Variable: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: I still haven’t figured out how I feel about this one. I liked it quite a bit upon first viewing, but it didn’t hold up at all the second time around. Still, the casting feels right, and I’d be up for The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, provided they turn up the Ford-and-Zaphod shenanigans and turn down the forced Arthur-and-Trillian romance.

Worth a Rental: Constantine, Aliens of the Deep, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Island, March of the Penguins, The Aristocrats,Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, Jarhead, Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic, The Ice Harvest, War of the Worlds

Ho-Hum: Inside Deep Throat, The Jacket, Million Dollar Baby (2004), The Ring 2, Kingdom of Heaven, Unleashed, Mr. & Mrs. Smith,
Aeon Flux

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Eric Bana, Munich; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Straitharn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line; Naomi Watts, King Kong
Best Supporting Actor: Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; George Clooney, Syriana; Brendan Gleeson, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Best Supporting Actress: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Tilda Swinton, The Chronicles of Narnia

Unseen: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Bee Season, Broken Flowers, Cache, Casanova, Cinderella Man, Crash, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Grizzly Man, Gunner Palace, Head On, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, Match Point, The New World, Nine Lives, Pride and Prejudice, Serenity (although I watched all of Firefly last week), Shopgirl, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Wedding Crashers

2006: Frankly, the line-up doesn’t look too exciting at the moment. Nevertheless, 2006 will bring A Scanner Darkly, Casino Royale, The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Inside Man, Marie Antoinette, M:I III, Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Snakes on a Plane (!!), Southland Tales, Superman Returns, Tristam Shandy, V for Vendetta, and X3.

Tilting at Windmills (Again).

“It’s got to the point that I think I just have to get it out of my system. Everyone’s been asking me questions about it, so just to shut everybody up I’ve got to make a film.” By way of Quiddity, Terry Gilliam, fresh off The Brothers Grimm and Tideland, may try to give The Man Who Killed Don Quixote another go. And word is, Depp’s still on board.

Mirror, Mirror, on the wall.

Worlds of wonder abound in the trailer bin today, including our first real look at Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm (looks a bit Munchausen-y…and I hope I can get used to Matt Damon’s accent) and this trippy voyage into Neil Gaiman’s Mirrormask. And, speaking of Gaiman, his and Robert Zemeckis’ forthcoming version of Beowulf has a cast: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Brendan Gleeson, and Robin Wright Penn.

On War, Violence, and other Grimm Matters.

In this weekend’s movie bin, yet another new look at Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and a higher quality version of the trailer for David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence that premiered at Cannes last week. And, further into the future, the one-sheet for Terry Gilliam’s return, The Brothers Grimm, makes it online. Along with Heath Ledger, Matt Damon, and the lovely Monica Bellucci, Grimm also includes Peter Stormare and Jonathan Pryce. Seeing Sam Lowry back in the Gilliam-verse should be worth the price of admission by itself.

Clearing the Book Bin.

In a perfect world, I’d write up book reviews here on GitM with the consistency and length of my movie posts. (Then again, in a perfect world, I’d also be able to dunk a basketball.) But, time being a factor, here instead are some short thoughts on non-history books recently consumed.


Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds
Children of God, Mary Doria Russell
The Prestige, Christopher Priest
The Battle of Brazil, Jack Mathews
The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick
American Pastoral, Philip Roth
Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens

Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds: “Working alone, living within the cramped confines of the pod, Sylveste spent weeks learning how to jump-start the lighthugger’s crippled repair systems…When the recuperative processes were in swing he was able to sleep, finally — not daring to believe that he would actually succeed. And in those dreams, Sylveste gradually became aware of a momentous, paralysing truth…before he regained consciousness, something had happened. Something had reached into his mind and spoken to him. But the message that was imparted to him was so brutally alien that Sylveste could not put it into human terms. He had stepped into Revelation Space.

I’d heard a lot of good things from sci-fi aficionados I trust about the Revelation Space arc of Alastair Reynolds, who holds a PhD in astronomy and clearly knows his stuff. In fact, one of the strengths of Revelation is in how Reynolds grounds what amounts to a sci-fi space opera in hard science ideas. For example, I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the book offers a hypothetical answer to Fermi’s Paradox, or that Hawking’s singularity theories play a significant role in the denouement. Of course, some scientific quandaries, such as the ability for ships to move at or around lightspeed, are left unexplained (it’s apparently been figured out by a shadowy, mysterious group known as the Conjoiners.) But, even those flights of fancy carry the touch of realism, as indicated by the time disparities throughout the book — Often, a character will get locked away in jail or have some other ugly incident befall him or her, and then fifteen years will pass in the space of a few paragraphs (or at least fifteen years relative to the prisoner — the time is shorter on the ship en route.)

These clever ideas notwithstanding, however, I found Reynolds’ writing style a bit dense and unwieldy at times. All in all, I ended up enjoying Revelation Space, but it was also a bit of a slog. In fact, I ended up putting it down for several weeks. There are four books (and counting) in the series, and I’ve heard they get better as they go along…but still, I’ve been putting off delving into #2, the prequel Chasm City, until I’ve got more time on my hands.

Children of God, Mary Doria Russell: “It was absurd in hindsight — the very idea that a handful of humans might have been able to do everything right the first time. Even the closest of friends can misunderstand one another, he reminded himself. First contact — by definition — takes place in a state of radical ignorance, where nothing is known about the ecology, biology, languages, culture, and economy of the Other. On Rakhat, that ignorance proved catastrophic. You couldn’t have known, Vincenzo Giuliani thought, hearing his own pacing, but remembering Emilio’s. It wasn’t your fault. Tell that to the dead, Emilio would have answered.

As y’all may or may not remember, I highly recommended Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow last fall, and have only now gotten around to reading the sequel, in which both Father Emilio Sandoz, sole survivor of the ill-fated Jesuit expedition, and the planet of Rakhat grapple with the consequences of the abortive, abysmal First Contact described in Book One. An anthropology PhD (I promise, I read sci-fi by non-PhDs too — this back-to-back was a fluke), Russell has constructed a clever and refreshing science fiction tale here that seems very far removed from most standard forays in the genre. I preferred Sparrow to Children — in fact, in some ways I think the resolution of the latter book detracts from the power of the first — but they’re both well worth-reading and readily accessible to people who get easily aggravated by the usual sci-fi literary tropes.

I will admit that at times I felt that Russell’s characters all spoke with the same voice — they all have the same wry intelligence and self-deprecating humor, and they tend to react in similar ways when pushed to the wall. But, it’s a forgivable lapse, and besides, given that this is the type of mistake made by newer authors, the tendency may well be rectified in her newest, just-published book, A Thread of Grace (No more sci-fi for now — Grace is a work of historical fiction set in WWII Italy.)

The Prestige, Christopher Priest: “First let me in a manner of speaking show you my hands, palms forward, fingers splayed, and I will say to you (and mark this well): ‘Every word in this notebook that describes my life and work is true, honestly meant and accurate in detail.’…Already, without writing a falsehood, I have started the deception that is my life. The lie is contained in these words, even in the very first of them. It is the fabric of everything that follows, yet nowhere will it be apparent. I have misdirected you with the talk of truth, objective records and motives. I have omitted the significant information, and now you are looking in the wrong place.”

After finishing up Batman Begins, Memento‘s Chris Nolan will apparently be making this film, and it should be a doozy. Tales of turn-of-the-century prestidigitators have perhaps been somewhat overdone in recent lit — At times, The Prestige reminded me of both Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil and the first “Houdini” half of Kavalier & Klay. Nevertheless, The Prestige, the sordid tale of two dueling stage magicians and their respective covenants with electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, is a quick fantasy read that’s well worth picking up. Even if you figure out where it’s all going, and I’d say I guessed most of it about halfway through, the ending still has a Five Star level Twilight Zone-creepiness to it. All in all, with an eerie climax you’re not going to shake off lightly, The Prestige is a grim and captivating conjuration — read it before seeing the movie.

The Battle of Brazil, Jack Mathews: “Gilliam’s Brazil is a cautionary tale about the loss of passion in a bureaucratic society where people passively go along to get along. It’s his metaphor for the lives we now lead, overly dependent as we are on structure, materialism, and dubious technology. There isn’t a futuristic element to it, other than the likelihood that the future holds more of the same. The love story between the daydreaming bureaucrat Sam Lowry and the cynical truck driver Jill Layton is the major sub-text. The dominant theme is that only through fantasy can we escape the reality of our own lives.

I actually don’t quite agree with Jack Mathew’s take above on the film…there’s a lot more going on in Brazil than just Organization Man angst. [I tossed this out for my college paper almost a decade ago, but at some point I'd like to write a much-longer post around here that does Brazil (and, for that matter, Amadeus, Miller's Crossing, and several other of my Top Ten films) justice.] At any rate, you can get most of the information in The Battle of Brazil — which chronicles the attempts by Universal flunky Sid Sheinberg to either squash or re-edit the film — out of the companion documentary on the 3-disc Criterion set (which also includes the Sheinberg “Love conquers all” edit.) But, for fans of Terry Gilliam’s magnum opus (as well as people interested in studio realpolitik), there are a lot of fun anecdotes and vignettes to be had — For example, Rupert Everett or Tom Cruise as possible Sam Lowrys, DeNiro’s Method Acting Tuttle to everyone’s annoyance, and Gilliam’s point-for-point evisceration of several negative reviews of the film (including ones by Rex Reed, Roger Ebert, and the inimitable Pauline Kael.) This version of the book also contains the full screenplay (by Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown, the latter of whom plays Sam’s office neighbor Harry Lime.) Again, a quick read, and interesting in its own right as a tale of Hollywood inside baseball. But, of course, unlike The Prestige, see the movie before you read the book.

The Shawl, Cynthia Ozick: “She looked into Magda’s face through a gap in the shawl: a squirrel in a nest, safe, no one could reach her inside the little house of the shawl’s windings. The face, very round, a pocket mirror of a face: but it was not Rosa’s bleak complexion, dark like cholera, it was another kind of face altogether, eyes blue as hair, smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa’s coat. You could think she was one of their babies.

I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to evaluating serious and prize-winning short fiction like Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl, I tend to feel slightly out of my depth. (But being uninformed about matters has never stopped me from commenting before, so why worry about it now?) At any rate, the question of how to address and make sense of insensible atrocities is one pondered by both fiction writers and historians. And, while I was moved and impressed by some of Ozick’s paragraphs or imagery at times, altogether, I don’t think these two stories squared that elusive circle very well.

At the risk of spoiling it for you [Seriously, stop reading if you don't want to know the end], the very brief first story in The Shawl, set inside a concentration camp, basically involves a mother’s reaction to watching her baby get thrown onto an electric fence. (The longer and better second tale picks up with the same mother, now a semi-sane Holocaust “survivor” in retiree-land Florida, thirty years later.) This first story is obviously shocking and repugnant, and perhaps as a way of approximating a small sliver of the unknowable horror of the Holocaust, it may even be a success. But, to be honest, I found it more exploitative than anything else — the central incident of the tale happens so quickly and with so little context that it reminded me of what David Edelstein (and others) noted of the egregious 21 Grams: “it doesn’t take insight or artistry to shake up an audience with dead kids. It just takes a certain kind of ruthlessness.

To be fair, perhaps my problems with The Shawl are faults of the genre. After all, if there’s any murdering of innocents to be done in a short story, it has to be done rather quickly, or else we’re getting into novella territory. Still, I found Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrow of War a much more harrowing and successful survivor’s tale read of late, partly because it reflects at length on the questions of writing and remembering, but also because it had more room to breathe, more lulls between the horrific episodes, and, to my mind, more character development.

American Pastoral, Philip Roth: “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from one and one’s history…He whose natural nobility was to be exactly what he seemed to be has taken in far too much suffering to be naively whole again…Stoically he suppresses his horror. He learns to live behind a mask. A lifetime experiment in endurance. A performance over a ruin. Swede Levov lives a double life.”

A few years ago a good friend of mine let me her copy of Goodbye, Columbus as an introduction to the world of Philip Roth and…well, not to put too fine a point on it, I didn’t like it. (My impressions of the book are blurry now, but I remember thinking that not only could I not empathize with the main character, I actively disliked him, from his relishing his 1-on-1 basketball victories over his girlfriend’s little sister to his endless passive-aggressive pushing on the diaphragm issue. In retrospect, I guess that was probably the point.) So, when another good friend offered me her copy of American Pastoral, I was mildly hesitant.

Yet, I found Swede Levov’s fall from American grace vastly preferable to my first Roth experience, so much so that I aim to throw a few more of his books in the hopper at some point in the near future. (Looking back, it was probably a bad call to judge a writer of Roth’s stature and prolificness by only his first work anyway, however well-reviewed.) At times, I did think the “Americanness” aspect of the Swede’s arc was a tad overdone — for example, in the Johnny Appleseed segues, or the hinge point of the story being 1968. And perhaps the symbolism was occasionally just a little too cute (e.g. Miss New Jersey becoming a breeder of cows, or the dinner party incident that closes the book.) But, all in all, Pastoral turned out to be quite a powerful treatise on the charred smell emanating from all too many postwar American dreams, as well as a haunting case study of one man trying to keep it together once the wheels come off. (By the way, I’m open to suggestions for the next stop on the Roth train. Portnoy? I Married a Communist?)

Why Orwell Matters, Christopher Hitchens: “The three great subjects of the twentieth century were imperialism, fascism and Stalinism…Most of the intellectual class were fatally compromised by accomodation with one or other of these man-made structures of inhumanity, and some by more than one…[But after his experience as a budding imperialist functionary in India] Orwell was in a stronger position to feel viscerally as well as intellectually about the modernist empires of Nazism and Stalinism. Among many other things, of which an educated sympathy for victims and especially racial victims was only one, he had grown sensitive to intellectual hypocrisy and was well-tuned to pick up the invariably creepy noises which it gives off. He was already an old India hand, in other words, when it came to detecting corrupt or euphemistic excuses for undeserved and unchecked power.

I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who looks at Christopher Hitchens these days and laments a great writer and once-formidable man of the Left now — seemingly irrevocably — gone to seed. Still, Orwell being high in my personal pantheon of writers, I thought I’d give his extended essay Why Orwell Matters a look-see. The result is intriguing not only for what it tells us about Orwell, but also in understanding and humanizing this most recent incarnation of Hitchens. Throughout the book, Hitchens applauds Orwell’s enviable foresight and his “power of facing” unpleasant truths so often obscured to others by ideology or wishful thinking. As the passage above suggests, with the exception of severely understating the future role of the US in world affairs (and his occasional and unfortunate lapses into homophobia), Hitchens argues, Orwell got all the big questions of the 20th century right. He anticipated the demise of imperialism and — unlike many of his contemporaries on the Left — was as stringent an opponent of Stalinist totalitarianism as he was of Nazism.

Hitchens is correct in noting all of these remarkable insights and legacies of our man Orwell. (As an aside, Hitchens’ theory that Orwell could probably have gotten lifesaving treatment for his tuberculosis here in America is really just too depressing to contemplate.) Still, I don’t think it’s going too far to suggest that Hitchens is also trying to use Orwell as a paragon of independent thinking in order to justify his own recent cheerleading for the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

I don’t know how Orwell would come down on the Iraq war. Who can know for sure? On one hand, as Hitchens would immediately point out, Orwell was no friend to tyrants. He put his own life on the line to defend Republican Spain, and — like most clear-headed people — wouldn’t shed a tear to see a two-bit sadistic despot like Saddam dispatched to the dustbin of history. On the other hand, Orwell clearly had a well-developed suspicion of imperialist enterprises, particularly those cloaked in the language of freedom and good intentions. If nothing else, I feel pretty confident Orwell would have lambasted the corruption of political rhetoric — and outright lies — that characterized our entry into this current conflict. I’m sure Hitchens is right to suggest that Orwell would rally against the inhuman ideology of terrorist fundamentalism, as he did against the nefarious -isms of his day. But that doesn’t mean Orwell — or Hitchens, for that matter — should be so sanguine in backing our current policy in Iraq. One does not necessarily flow from the other.

The Princess of Tides.

Dreams, the Terry Gilliam fansite, obtains a number of quality publicity stills from Tideland. Not much to speak of here, frankly, but it’s nice to see this project still moving along without any (knock on wood) La Mancha-like upsets.

Terryland.

Perhaps inspired by PJ’s King Kong webisodes, Terry Gilliam kicks off the official website for Tideland with the first of several behind-the-scenes videos. Let’s just hope they don’t turn into Lost in La Mancha II

It’s Funny Because It’s True.

Bad form, I know, but this week’s Onion is particularly amusing. Take, for example, Hundreds Of Republicans Injured In Rush To Discredit Kerry. “‘It’s bad down here,’ Savannah (GA) General Hospital director Lloyd Sautner said. ‘We were still treating hurricane victims when all these politicians were hurt in the whirlwind of manufactured controversy.’” I also liked Bush Campaign More Thought Out Than Iraq War and Terry Gilliam’s Barbeque Plagued by Production Delays.

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