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"LOST IN LA MANCHA"
(2002) (Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Documentary: Director Terry Gilliam tries to film his version of Don Quixote, but runs into various difficulties and setbacks that threaten to derail the effort.
PLOT:
In 2000, documentary filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe set out to record director Terry Gilliam filming "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" -- the filmmaker's version of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's classic tale -- from pre-production through finished product.

Choosing to shoot in Spain to reduce production costs, Gilliam's first setback was a reduction in his operating budget. Nevertheless, he forged ahead in his effort to create a highly imaginative and stylized film starring the likes of Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort.

Yet, once the actual shooting begins, one setback after another occurs, resulting in Gilliam and his cast and crew trying to deal with them and keep the production on track. From that point on, it's uncertain whether the various difficulties will ultimately undermine the overall effort.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
I don't know who Murphy was, but the law named after him suggests he probably wasn't the best person to be around during a thunderstorm, tax audit, or a trip down a dark alley with anvils positioned somewhere overhead. Perhaps he coined the term, "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all" (otherwise I believe "Hee Haw" gets the credit). Whatever the case, his "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" curse perpetually circles the globe, looking to inflict its wrath on all sorts of victims.

Director Terry Gilliam ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "Twelve Monkeys") was apparently one of them back in 2000 when he attempted to film "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," his unique version of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's classic tale. Ignoring the fact that even the great Orson Welles was unable to do that during the 1950s despite repeated attempts, Gilliam damned the supposed Quixote curse and sailed full steam into a cinematic iceberg.

Of course, that's not the first time various problems and setbacks have sank a production, nor will it be the last. Such occurrences, however, are usually left to folklore and/or firsthand accounts, interviews and whatever film footage, if any, was actually shot.

Luckily for anyone who wants to see a movie derailment in the making, documentary filmmakers Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe had signed on to document the making of the film (much as they did with "The Hamster Factory and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys"). Rather than documenting the production from start to finish, though, they ended up capturing a behind the scenes look at the train wreck in all of its glory.

The result is "Lost in La Mancha," a 90-some minute recounting of what, or more accurately, everything that went wrong with the shoot. Sporadically narrated by actor Jeff Bridges, the film follows Gilliam and his cast and crew from pre-production through the first few days of shooting up until the whole thing was abandoned.

While the film will really be of most interest to movie buffs and film students (to which it will serve as something of a cautionary tale of how not to make a film), it also shows how various people respond to unexpected professional adversity.

Unlike what you might hear from other reviewers, however, the film isn't exactly what most would consider entertaining, let alone funny. A few moments - such as a flash flood that washes away a great deal of the crew's equipment and time while on location in the Spanish desert - are humorous in something of an "Omigosh, could it get any worse?" sort of way.

Most of the film, though, is just a flat and repetitive look at things going wrong and various people pulling out their hair in response. It also takes a while before the "fun" begins as scene after scene shows Gilliam doing his thing while prepping and rehearsing various aspects of the production.

Gilliam also supplies original cartoon work for the effort - as a sort of filler with some of it being comprised of animated storyboards - but the work isn't as clever or funny as the similar sort of material he provided years ago for the Monty Python TV series and films.

I was also half-expecting the documentary filmmakers to take something of a Python approach at humorously showing or recounting the numerous mini-disasters. Beyond a fun Quixote-inspired score, however, most of the film comes off as a rather flat and unhurried documentary.

It doesn't help matters that Gilliam's intended version of the film - about a contemporary time traveler ending up in the 17th century where Quixote mistakes him for his usual sidekick - sounded like a bad idea from the get-go. Of course, many of his films might have initially come off that same way on paper. Yet, we never get the chance to see if this one was going to work as only a tiny bit of footage actually made it through the cameras.

What's amazing is that Fulton and Pepe were given unrestricted and apparently unedited access to every aspect of the moviemaking process, including views of the various and progressively troubling meltdowns as they occurred. They also try to force some movie metaphors about how Gilliam and his quest being akin to his film's character and goal. Without the finished product, however, there's only so much they can do with the material.

Some of the footage deals with various crewmembers - such as first assistant director Phil Patterson - while other bits show stars Johnny Depp ("From Hell," "Blow") and veteran actor Jean Rochefort ("The Closet," TV's "Le Compte de Monte Cristo) plying their trade. Even so, there aren't many opportunities for that to occur, what with the medical problems, meteorological conditions and the like repeatedly stymieing the effort.

Interesting but nothing spectacular, the film is relatively easy enough to sit through, but isn't quite as insightful and certainly not as entertaining as I had been led to believe. "Lost in La Mancha" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed February 6, 2003 / Posted February 14, 2003


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