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Terry Gilliam has been trying to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for nearly 30 years, including a 2000 effort starring Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort where cameras actually began to roll.

The plug got pulled on that production after Rochefort, cast as Quixote, turned up with a bad back, and flooding rained down upon Gilliam’s set with a vengeance that wrecked the landscape and washed his equipment away. Further efforts to film Quixote since then have been mired in lawsuits and insurance issues, with many cast members—including Ewan McGregor, Michael Palin and Robert Duvall—passing through. So it was with a little bit of shock that I found myself sitting down for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a finished film directed by Terry Gilliam, almost 20 years after the documentary Lost in La Mancha depicted the collapse of the Depp iteration.

As a Gilliam fan, it is with a heavy heart that I report the film is, not surprisingly, quite a mess, the result of too many revamps and adjustments over the years.

The problems are not with the performances. Adam Driver does an excellent job in the role initially intended for Depp as Toby, a frantic, disillusioned TV-commercial director who longs for the esoteric days of his not-too-distant filmmaking past (a character clearly modeled after Gilliam himself). Jonathan Pryce proves to be a perfect choice for Don Quixote—or rather a cobbler given an acting gig who goes so method in his approach that he believes he’s the real Quixote.

In the film, Toby seeks out the Pryce character in an effort to bolster a current, commercialized version of the Quixote story. In his travels, he confuses dreams with reality, finds himself being mistaken for Sancho Panza (Quixote’s dim sidekick), witnesses the exploitation of women in the workforce, and battles some fat giants.

The screenplay, co-written by Gilliam, ambitiously shoots for satire about our current political atmosphere and the state of filmmaking in general. Its plot-driving device—the blurring of reality and the dream world—flat-out fails. This is the first Gilliam film shot on digital video, and the visual richness that accompanied his previous films is nowhere to be found. Gilliam’s often-violent and harried style, accompanied by tight, claustrophobic visuals, must not translate to the video lens. Much of this movie is just a spastic, visual mess.

Because the dream world and the real world have no true visual distinction, Gilliam constantly has Toby pointing out whether he is in a dream or not. It’s left to the viewer to really figure out what is going on—and it just doesn’t work, especially in the film’s second half, where it all falls apart.

There are some inspired moments. The giants sequence, so memorably depicted in Lost in La Mancha as Gilliam’s big moment in the Quixote story, shows a flash of what the movie could’ve been. Granted, the movie he made today was done for two-thirds of the budget he had 20 years ago. Gilliam has expensive visual ambitions, and trying to convey those on shoestring budgets doesn’t work. Granted, big budgets are justified by public interest in a film, and interest probably isn’t too high for a blockbuster Quixote movie.

Gilliam’s career went on a severe downhill trajectory after the failure of the original Quixote. He has said in interviews that he just wanted this movie out of his system. Now that Quixote is finally on screens, perhaps it will vacate the cherished auteur’s mind and allow him to get on to better things. Movies like Tideland, The Brothers Grimm, The Zero Theorem and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are pale representations of what the man can do. Perhaps the director (still amazingly spry at the age of 78) can get back to the business of focused yet deliciously crazed movie-making.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

The Wife is one of those movies that strikes me as something that would’ve worked better as a play.

I enjoyed it on some levels, and some of the performances are quite good, especially Glenn Close as the title character. However, other performances feel like they are being played for an audience on a stage rather than on camera. I’ve read that members of the cast rehearsed for weeks before cameras rolled, and The Wife displays evidence that sometimes you can be a little too polished—and come off as too melodramatic for a movie. That melodrama could play well in an Off Broadway play, but for a movie like this? It’s a little too forced.

Close plays Joan Castleman, wife of the newly christened Nobel Prize for Literature winner Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce or, as I like to call him, Sam Lowry). The first hint of the golden work Close will do in this movie comes during an early moment when she picks up a phone to listen in as her husband is informed of his prize. Close does an expression that’s straight out of a master class in how to act with your face for a camera. It’s breathtaking.

As the movie starts to play out, one character in particular sticks out like a sore thumb: David, their son, played by Max Irons (son of Jeremy). This is not to say Irons delivers a bad performance; it’s just the wrong performance. There are moments when he comes off as too petulant and overacting. There are moments when he comes off as quite brilliant. I was able to accept his performance by pretending he was doing it somewhere in Manhattan for a live audience; it just worked better for me that way. Unfortunately, we are not supposed to play those sorts of mental games when watching a movie. The movie needs to flow as a cohesive piece, and Irons sometimes takes you right out of the film.

Close’s daughter, Annie Starke, plays a younger version of Close’s character; they both kill it in every scene, so much so that you have to dismiss the bad stuff and enjoy the greatness you are seeing. The two actresses help sell a story that is more symbolic than anything, an age-old tale about repression and insincerity. It’s been told before—this movie shares some DNA with Barton Fink—and it’s been told in better overall before, but Close and Starke make it quite electric at times.

Pryce is equally good as the alternately polite and selfish author with major personality flaws that make him a lousy husband and father. Credit goes to this gifted actor for making Joe a total ass, yet somebody you can’t help but feel a little sorry for.

As an investigative author hounding the Castlemans, the one and only Christian Slater makes his best cinematic impression in many years. His role is as clichéd as a role can get, but he makes Nathaniel Bone compellingly persuasive and nasty.

There are some great cinematic moments constructed by director Björn Runge that put The Wife over the top. One of the final shots of Close, with the Stockholm snow outside the window behind her, is a stunner. Her final shot … well, it’s a keeper for sure.

Moments like those help to sort of cancel out the moments that are stagey or a bit too farfetched. The Wife is very much worth seeing for Close, Pryce and Starke. They make you wish they’d take this story to the stage, where it probably belongs.

The Wife is now playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

In 1843, when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, folks were just starting to get into that thing we call Christmas, with stuff like Christmas trees, gift-giving and Cyber Mondays. (An iPad would cost, like, nothing on Cyber Monday in 1843, because nobody had invented the damn thing yet.)

It was the Dickens novel about a miserable miser named Ebenezer Scrooge, who transforms from evil greed monster to kind philanthropist throughout its five chapters, that would help take the celebration of Christmas to a new level—and the boldly titled The Man Who Invented Christmas spins an entertaining and clever take on how and why Dickens got the idea for the story that would change the world.

Coming off a couple of flops after the success of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is doing clumsy book tours to pay the bills. Desperate for a “hit,” he gets an idea for a Christmas book—one in which a greedy man is haunted by ghosts of the past, present and future. The story is meant to be a cautionary yarn about the evils of selfishness, and perhaps less about the joys of Christmas and redemption. As Dickens gets further into his book, and his own psyche, the themes change toward hope, and his classic is born.

Director Bharat Nalluri, working from a screenplay by Susan Coyne (based on the book by Les Standiford), gets the unique opportunity to tell the making of A Christmas Carol while, in some ways, making yet another version of the famed story itself. The film features Dickens conferring with the fictional characters in his story as he creates them, so we get an Ebenezer Scrooge, this time played by the great Christopher Plummer. It’s no surprise that Plummer is perfect for the role. Essentially playing a voice in Dickens’ head, Plummer gets the chance to offer up his own spin on the great line, “Bah, humbug!” and he looks absolutely smashing in that sleepwear.

While he doesn’t get much screen time (this is, after all, mostly a biographical depiction of Dickens), Plummer instantly joins the League of Great Scrooges. He’s right up there with Alastair Sim, Mr. Magoo and Henry Winkler. (OK, Winkler played someone named Benedict Slade in An American Christmas Carol, but Slade was a thinly veiled Scrooge. Actually, I liked that movie, but it would’ve been better had Winkler portrayed Scrooge as his alter ego, Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, rather than going the old-cranky-guy route. Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham could’ve been Jacob Marley. OK, I watched too much damned Happy Days when I was a kid.)

Stevens, having a big year with this and his turn in Beauty and the Beast, portrays Dickens as a bit of an eccentric nut. As Dickens concocts the story in his writing room, he throws tantrums and has imaginary conversations with imaginary people. Stevens finds some humor in this, but he doesn’t stay away from the notion that Charles perhaps needed a long metal vacation.

A touching subplot has Dickens dealing with major daddy issues as his penniless father (Jonathan Pryce) comes to town and causes trouble by trying to sell his son’s autograph and unleashing a pet raven in the household. Through flashbacks, we see that Charles’ adoration for his good-natured but scheming father led to a long stretch of sadness when his father went to jail, and he went to an orphanage (themes that obviously played out in other Dickens stories). The film suggests that Dickens’ forgiveness toward his father led to the redemptive turn in A Christmas Carol. I don’t know if that’s based on fact, but I liked it in the movie.

The film’s production values, which look a little drab, keeps it from being great, but the performances help put it over the top.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a different kind of holiday movie. It’s not going to rank up there with Rudolph or Frosty, but for those of you looking for a deeper telling of a great fable, it won’t disappoint.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940); and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews