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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005 01:32 am

Gilliam's fairy tales

Normal doesn't describe the American Python's directorial efforts

Terry Gilliam was the least visible member of the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but he has made the greatest impression in the cinema. In fact, he has reached such a high level as a director that his films can’t be judged by normal standards. His current release, The Brothers Grimm, although not a bad film, suffers in comparison with his other films. His transition to world-class filmmaker may rank as the greatest cinematic surprise of the 1980s.

Gilliam, the only American Python, was known previously as the creator of the bizarre animations for the group’s television series. When the Pythons graduated to the big screen with Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Gilliam was credited as co-director with Terry Jones, but the entire group probably had creative input. Grail is their best and funniest film. Gilliam’s solo directorial debut, Jabberwocky (1977), seemed like a lower-grade extension of Holy Grail but not nearly as funny. Time Bandits (1981) was a major leap forward for Gilliam. A young boy discovers a time hole in his closet, and he travels back and forth through time with a group of dwarves. Gilliam made the film in the form of a children’s fantasy, but it really isn’t a kiddie flick. The real surprise is what followed. No one could have predicted Gilliam was capable of Brazil (1985), an absolutely astounding achievement. I covered Brazil in a previous column, so consider this a reminder.

All great artists deserve one grand folly, and Gilliam’s is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), a comedy/fantasy starring John Neville as the legendary teller of tall tales. Don’t let its box-office failure fool you. Munchausen is an extravagant vision, and the humor should be appreciated by Python fans.

The Fisher King (1991) is Gilliam’s first cinematic journey through the present world, but it never betrays his skewed vision. Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams are two emotionally disturbed men who bond, but don’t expect a maudlin heartwarming story from Gilliam. He followed this with two more brilliant films, Twelve Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).

More insight into what makes Gilliam tick can be found in Lost in La Mancha (2002), an excellent documentary that charts the demise of his film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam has already completed his next film, Tideland, but no American release date is set.

DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (Sept. 13): Fever Pitch, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Winter Solstice, and Childstar.

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