Flop Films Re-Assessed


We got to five on this site last time around: I reviewed very obscure films to the complete disinterest of my readership. Here was I eager to discuss bonkers storylines with anyone who’d listen and you lot were like middle-class housewives at a book club; two minutes of interest followed by a heated discussion about the difficulty of finding a decent gardener.

So I thought I’d try again, but go into a little less detail this time. Unsurprising news; authors love a good story. They’re what I looked for when I started going to the cinema, whereas if I go with my art director pal Martin, he’ll give a film the thumbs-up according to its colour palette.

So, to ‘The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus’. Terry Gilliam might seem like a cursed director. The disasters of ‘Brazil’ and ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ are well documented, but on this one he had the talented and vital Heath Ledger die on him halfway through the shoot, most likely of medication taken to counteract pneumonia. It looks to have been a cold, wet, damp shoot.

Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is cursed to live forever, at war with the Devil (Tom Waits). He survives by telling stories from his ragged sideshow but the modern world is not interested. Literally; portly shoppers stagger out of megastores to be confronted by his performances with Lily Cole and Andrew Garfield but their eyes and imaginations are dead; they are mystified and bored by storytelling.

Heath Ledger’s remaining unfilmed scenes are filled by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, a concept which works beautifully. They take disinterested shoppers through a tinsel mirror into impossible landscapes, where good or evil may befall them. But Parnassus has a secret involving his beloved daughter…

On second viewing you can see how perfectly the pieces fit. The story becomes part King Lear, with Goneril and her sisters played by the three added stars. The hanged man under the bridge is a Tarot symbol reflected in the Thames but also Roberto Calvi, ‘God’s Banker’. The film is unashamedly fantastical but rooted in a grim reality where people care more about buying plastic rubbish than being told a story.And for once the CGI effects are intended to look absurd and unreal. It’s the ending that got me this time, a bittersweet moment that breaks the heart.

But there are also some great big flaws; Like his predecessor Richard Lester, Gilliam never knows when to leave the soundtrack free of babbling, busy voices. He never has a quiet moment; it’s all too manic and slapstick, as if he too is frightened that his disinterested plebs will wander off. Parnassus’s sidekick dwarf is extremely tiresome. Lily Cole is painfully underused. And who is the film aimed at? Too bleak for children, too strange for mainstream audiences. But what a rare and wonderful thing it is on occasion.



24 comments on “Flop Films Re-Assessed”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    Gilliam is a strange bird. He goal was always to make a big, commercial Hollywood movie yet, he always seemed to wind up making ambitious, yet very personal films — too personal for the broad commercial success he craved. And perhaps all the more surprising in the case of ‘Imaginarium’ because of its star-studded cast and what must have been more than passing interest in the wake of Heath Ledger’s death.

    I will say that the way he handled replacing Ledger’s character with Depp, Farrell and Law playing alternate aspects of him was inspired. The effects were also very good. The rest, for me, well — it was ‘so Terry Gilliam.’ As I recall, I was entertained for about an hour or so, but then found myself shifting in an otherwise comfortable seat and woolgathering — only to be brought back to the film by something on the soundtrack. This happened a couple of times.

    “Imaginarium,” of course, is another Gilliam story about storytelling, a favorite theme, and something I think he shares with you and the B&M series, if I may be so bold.

  2. Jo W says:

    Perhaps the lack of comments on the previous posts were not because of disinterest,but because your readers had not seen those films and therefore had nothing of interest to add. ( That includes me.)
    Now then, back to my copy of LBIFD…………

  3. John Howard says:

    Is the thought, ‘Terry Gilliam makes Terry Gilliam movies,” a bit too pat..? I will expand but first of all to the descriptions of us in the first paragraph. It did make me smile so thanks for starting off the day the right way.. Anyway, back to Terry. I seem to have a soft spot for his films as I like anything he puts out even if there are lots of reasons in the making of them to nitpick. Amazingly I wasn’t aware of this film.. no idea why so that will have to be rectified swiftly. Thanks for chatting about it. Oh yes, in case you wanted to know, my very favourite of his is “The Fisher King.”

  4. Roger says:

    THe problem – my problem, at least – with Gilliam is that he has no restraint. Watch half-an-hour of any of his films and you know he’s a genius and think it must be a masterpiece, but he never eases up. He turns the switch up to “11” and leaves it there.

  5. Paul+C says:

    I watched this at the cinema when it came out and think it loses a lot on the small screen. The first hour was excellent then it tapered off for me only to pick up at the end. Gilliam is too busy and too manic but I always see his films – better a wayward talent than no talent and Brazil is a truly great film. Let’s hope he gets the chance to make a few more films – he’s stands out in sea of blandness.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    I agree that a ‘mediocre’ Terry Gilliam effort is still better than half (or more…) of the films out there at any point in time. Yet, I have walked away from just about every one of them feeling I had been through a course on filmmaking. Certainly more entertaining than listening to a failed or wanna-be filmmaker drone on about it — but leaving the cinema with the thought, “That was probably great” is not one I regularly look forward to after watching a movie. It does, however, often encourage another viewing, which either resolves the matter in favor of the film or my obviously superior critical skill.

  7. Paul+C says:

    The main fault of Gilliam and Ken Russell is excess but they both have a visual flair which is always striking.

    They seem to be more interested in visual splendour than stories but at least they have memorable imagery and marvellous sequences if not complete narrative cohesion. I admire them both for sticking to their own principles instead of churning out safe middle of the road pap for the market.

  8. V+i+c says:

    I agree with Paul+C. But then I do like surreal visual contentment be it cinema, painting or photography. Tom Waits is a favourite musician of mine – try him.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    No — this is not an aside about ‘…finding a decent gardner.’ In the cinema category of either ‘be still my beating heart’ or ‘so what,’ depending on your pov, it looks like Paulo Coelho’s  runaway bestseller, ‘The Alchemist’ will finally make it to the big screen. You may know (which would then prompt the question, ‘Why?’) that the 1988 inspirational parable about a shepherd looking for hidden treasure holds the Guinness World Record for the most translated work by a living author. It probably also holds the record for a novel read most by people who don’t read novels.

    Anyway, principal photography is set to start next month in Morocco. It will be produced and directed by Kevin Frakes (a red flagged hyphenation right there) and is to star Sebastian de Souza (The Great, Normal People) as ‘Santiago’ the shepherd; he will be joined by Tom Hollander (Birdman, The King’s Man) and Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog, The Promise). Jordi Molla (Jack Ryan, The Music of Silence), Youssef Kerkour (House of Gucci), and Ashraf Barhom (Tyrant, By Any Means) are also on board. You have been warned.

  10. SteveB says:

    Ishtar would be an interesting one to discuss I think, unless you did already and I missed it!!!
    And what about Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm?
    Sorry nothing to add on Terry G

  11. Paul+C says:

    Thanks, V i c – I’m already a big Tom Waits fan. I like his (very) odd film appearances in Ironweed, Seven Psychopaths and as a memorable Renfield in Dracula) and many of his albums such as Blood Money and Swordfish Trombones.

    If you like surreal photography try Joel Peter Witkin’s work – you will need a strong stomach for some of his amazing images. Is anyone aware of him ? Some of his photos are deeply disturbing so a note of caution.

  12. John+Griffin says:

    Brazil ruined a promising date; we were so depressed by it our libidos faded to nothing. A wonderful film, though.

  13. Keith says:

    Tend to agree with Jo W on this one. I haven’t seen the film in question. The only films I have seen by Gilliam have been Fear and Loathing which I loved, The Meaning of Life and the wonderful Brazil.
    Meanwhile, half-way into LBIFD and I must say I’m staggered. I must slow down to enjoy it even more. These characters have now made their way from the page into our psyche, and I will miss them so much after I finally put this book down. I just want to say an enormous THANK YOU for sharing the lives of all at the PCU with us, and honestly, I don’t know if a screen adaption would give them credit. Perhaps Mr. Bryant portrayed by Alun Armstrong and his sidekick on the series New Tricks Dennis Waterman- at least they’ve had experience at playing ‘cops’. And Alun Armstrong was brilliant in the film ‘Possum’.
    I can soon say I’ve read ALL of your books except perhaps for a few short stories that lurk between the pages of Horror/Crime anthologies.
    But after B&M there’s going to be a big blinkin’ hole in my heart that’ll never heal.

  14. Peter+T says:

    I’m afraid that I’ve made the mistake of reading LBIFD too quickly. But, it’s difficult not to with most of B&M and this one in particular. Perhaps it’s time for me to go back to the beginning and read them all slowly, savoring every precious phrase.

  15. Joel Ivins says:

    i enjoyed the spectacle of imaginarium, brothers grimm, time bandits, 12 monkeys, and the fisher king…fear and loathing gave me cramps…i have also enjoyed the aural spectacle of tom waits…and thank you paul + c for the suggestion of Joel Peter Witkin…i enjoy taking peoples recommendations and discovering something new

  16. Helen+Martin says:

    This website has introduced me to all sorts of facts, books, films, and historic locations I might otherwise never have experienced. I’m halfway into the Fabric of Civilization, Brooke, and thrilled by the gaps it fills. The development of cotton is fascinating and its influence on the colonising of Texas was a revelation. (Sorry, got off topic there.)

  17. I feel like good narratives are generally wasted on a mass market film audience. They just want to shut their brains down for a 90 minute light show.
    I don’t remember Imaginatorium well enough. I remember liking it, but I think we will need to to watch it this weekend.

  18. Stu-I-Am says:

    Had this scary thought of Gilliam working in VR. Probably safer than hallucinogens, but almost certainly would be classified as a public mental health risk.

  19. Peter+Dixon says:

    I liked the Adventures of Baron Munchausen – some great visuals, especially the Moon sequence with Robin Williams as a headless Man on the Moon.

  20. Stu-I-Am says:

    For those who haven’t seen it, I suggest the documentary on the making of Terry Gilliam’s disaster ‘Man Who Killed Don Quixote.’ ‘Lost in LaMancha’ provides not only a classic look at how a film can fall apart, even in the hands of a master director, but how said director can find it difficult to get out of his own way. Also suggest (again, if you haven’t seen it) probably the ‘best’ of his late-period films, ‘The Zero Theorem.’ (2013) Although (in my opinion) it has the usual Gilliam visual aesthetic in search of an intelligible plot. It had a limited cinema run and is streaming on Amazon YouTube and Apple TV among a couple of other platforms. ‘Lost in LaMancha’ is on Apple TV and Amazon. It can also be downloaded from IFC directly.

    A link to a trailer for ‘The Zero Theorem:’ (Note: Short promos before start) https://www.imdb.com/video/vi3304172057/?ref_=tt_vi_i_1

    and a link to a trailer for ‘Lost in LaMancha’ (2002): https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/lost-in-la-mancha/id257169110?cmp=rt_where_to_watch

  21. Helen+Martin says:

    So many films I’ve only seen as trailers. My husband has a deaf ear that has rather spoiled his enjoyment and I don’t enjoy going alone. Regarding the turning off the brain: I’ve had a bad back for a week and turned on a Jack Reacher movie last night. A tremendous amount of fist fighting, gun shooting and threats over phones. I loved every minute of it, including a lot of running through a Hallowe’en costume parade. Does New Orleans have a Hallowe’en parade? That sounds out of place somehow. Sometimes mindless violence eases one’s frustrations.

  22. Jonah says:

    Keep the flop films re-assessments coming! The Guardian has been running a similar series, but it’s too indiscriminate for me.
    “Brazil” a disaster? I recall it was critically lauded, and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Film award. Must have been financial disaster.
    BTW, Terry Gilliam’s murky “12 Monkeys” was a world-wide success if not a blockbuster in the States. His more mainstream “The Fisher King” did well in the US but not spectacularly. Currently Gilliam seems to be in the same cinematic semi-limbo as Terrence Mallick, making movies released almost under the radar.
    Elaine May’s “Ishtar” is enormous fun. Sure, its opening minutes with the flashbacks are confusing. I had to rewind the tape and re-watch the first 15 minutes. (Yes, videocassette. “Ishtar” was released on disc only recently.) Adding to the enjoyment: Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman seem to have switched roles. In “Ishtar” Hoffman plays the confident one, and Beatty is the sexually timid one. I wish the bad songs they perform had been expanded and released on an album.

  23. Stu-I-Am says:

    Time may, in fact, not heal all wounds as the expression goes, but it does tend to mitigate the original criticism of many flops — if not add a strong companion dose of reappraisal.. There’s an entire ‘ Hall of Un-Shame’ for films that tanked on release but were subsequently ‘re-appreciated.’ ‘Ishtar’ is not one of them — at least not in the way of ‘Willie Wonka,’ ‘Blade Runner’ and even ‘Citizen Kane.,’ among many others.

    In the case of ‘Ishtar,’ the reevaluation, has less to do with the film itself — other than a persisting nod to the miscasting of Beatty and Hoffman as ‘called-in’ favors to director Elaine May — than its place in the cavalcade of misguided filmic efforts. What the late US critic Roger Ebert called a ‘…truly dreadful film, a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy,’ on its initial release, has become, ‘not as bad as we thought’ — relative to other flops since.

    It probably will never achieve the ironic cult ‘midnight screenings’ status of say, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ but then neither is it now, among many, thought to be the definitive fail in the canon of flops, as it was when released in 1987. It has taken its place as more of a social document than a movie, with references to misogyny (May never directed another film), the often paralyzing egos of Hollywood (each star and director were said to have worked on their own final cut) and the (then) profligate spending ($ 23mm/£14mm over budget and starting with a deal without a script). Kind of a perverse or backhanded revisionism, if you will.

  24. Roberta says:

    I I’m a very big Gilliam fan, Brazil and 12 Monkeys and the Adventures of Baron von Munchausen probably being in my top 10 films. But I didn’t know quite what to make of Doctor Parnassus . .. I think your comments are insightful and I will watch it again.

    I saw a Joel Peter Witkin exhibit years ago in Chicago, and found the images hard to look at. I had to look at parts of them at a time, if that makes sense. I did think at the time it was slightly too glossy or curated? There was that story about him being inspired as a child by a car accident resulting in a human head rolling in front of him.

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