(On Cable TV, December 2014) I actually had big hopes for this film. Director Terry Gilliam is a true iconoclast, and his filmography contains a number of classics. But then again, his filmography is also filled with less-successful material and lengthy pauses between projects. Alas, The Zero Theorem doesn’t qualify as a success: While thematically ambitious and as visually intriguing as most of his other projects, this science-fiction film unfolds without rigor, letting its excesses run wild while not ensuring that the basic demands of the plot are met. There are moment of wit (including a gigantic sign telling park visitors what not to do in great detail) and intriguing characters: Christoph Waltz is good in a nearly-unrecognizable role, whereas Mélanie Thierry makes for an unconventional romantic interest; Matt Damon and Tilda Swinton are unexpectedly fun in small roles. Still, The Zero Theorem’s existentialist musings quickly devolve into pure incomprehensible yadda-yadda, choosing pretention over substance. The story has tone issues that the film’s manic design only makes worse, while the conclusion doesn’t do much to bring all of the separate plot threads into a satisfying conclusion. It’s a film best appreciated (and then again, not that much) by cinephiles and Gilliam completists rather than general audiences who will watch it and shrug: The Zero Theorem ends by disproving itself.
(In theaters, December 2009) A film by Terry Gilliam is usually quite unlike anything else, and so it is that The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is, at the very least, unique in its own way. The title is probably the most normal aspect of a film that allows the writer/director to fully indulge in his obsessions, from skewed images to wide-angles to midgets to stylized animation. The story may be about choices and imagination, but the result is pure visual spectacle for fans of special effects, imaginative dream worlds and cinematic fantasy. There are more than a few visual and thematic links to previous Gilliam films from The Fisher King to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. This being said, there are a few strong performances to admire as well: Much has been made of Heath Ledger’s final role and the way other actors (Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell) are used to complete his scenes set in imaginary worlds, but the result feels both appropriate and seamless. Also worthwhile are Verne Troyer (given surprisingly level-headed dialogue), Tom Waits (as, appropriately, the Devil), Lily Cole (an unconventional beauty balancing out the rest of the male-dominated cast) and Christopher Plummer as the titular doctor. Alas, the story is a bit more muddled: As with his latest Brothers Grimm, Gilliam delivers fantasy that seems to make it up as it goes along, never setting out rules or sticking to them: it makes the experience of seeing the film a bit tortuous if viewers are trying to do more than admire the pictures. But for Gilliam fans, this won’t be much of an issue: Overall, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a worthwhile effort, perhaps the single best Gilliam (and Gilliamesque) film in more than a decade.
(On VHS, December 1998) Not many films deserve the to be called “brilliant”, but this is one of them. Obviously rooted in the dystopian frameworks of 1984 and Brave New World, Brazil one-ups them by being a fiercely cinematic work. Director Terry Gilliam seldom disappoints, and the result is a non-stop succession of quirky images and weird angles that doesn’t flag halfway through like many other “high-visual” films. While it is true that the ending drags on for a while, the payoff is worth it. A memorable vision of a bureaucracy gone mad, Brazil is another movie to rent as soon as possible (though you might find it mis-shelved under the category “Comedy”…)
(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): I had inordinately fond memories of this film, and it turns out that I had forgotten just how great the film was: Another look kept surprising me with forgotten details, snappy turns of phrase and the film’s insane conceptual audaciousness. A sarcastic dystopia, Brazil never wimps out… especially at the very end. Twenty-five years later, Terry Gilliam’s direction is still spot-on, the production design of the film is still mesmerizing, and the pacing feels just as urgent as today’s films. Alas, the bare-bones DVD edition I watched had no supplements to speak of; this will be one of my must-buy Blu-Ray titles.