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The story behind Terry Gilliam's 1985 opus BRAZIL and how it got to the big screen is almost as fascinating as his strange, visually arresting satire itself.

Gilliam's legacy as a member of Monty Python gave him massive credibility as a visual genius. In 1981, his film "Time Bandits" became a surprise hit, grossing 8 times its $5 million budget.

He was offered the big budget sci-fi actioner, "Enemy Mine" (eventually helmed by Wolfgang Petersen) by 20th Century Fox, but he only wanted to make his dystopian, comedic study of bureaucracy gone amok.

With a script he wrote with playwright Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) and Charles McKeown (The Life of Brian), Gilliam and producer Aaron Milchan (LA Confidential, The Revenant) approached Universal and were given carte blanche to create Gilliam's vision.

Gilliam is now famous for all of his films that struggled to make it to the big screen once production began, but this is the Hollywood legend that gave birth to that reputation.

The tale is over-complicated but engaging. Jonathan Pryce (Evita, The Two Popes) stars as Sam Lowry, a daydreaming cog in a massive and overwhelming system caught up in forms, rules and legislation. The world it takes place in is not necessarily the future, although most people call this an Orwellian film about the future. It's not the future, it's a low tech, exaggerated version of present day (1985 when it was made) UK.

Lowry seems to be his boss Mr. Kurtzmann's favorite, due to Lowry's unending devotion to the volumes of paperwork and approvals that cross their desks. Ian Holm (Alien) is hilarious as Kurtzmann, constantly trying to catch his many workers as they sneak watching old black and white movies at their desks anytime he closes his office door.

Lowry's mother Ida Lowry (Katherine Hellmann from "Soap", over-the-top funny) has been stretched, rebuilt and wholly remade under the scalpel of Dr. Jaffe. Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!, The Gangs of New York) gets big laughs as the plastic surgeon who's never anywhere near done.

Ida is a wealthy socialite and pushing hard on her son to accept a promotion.

Sam's idle moments are filled with fantasies in which he is a soaring Adonis with wings, flying in huge arcs above the clouds in search of a beautiful blonde woman who always seems just out of reach.

One day at work, he sees her at the front desk of his workplace, trying to file a complaint that her neighbor was wrongly taken away and murdered by the government as a terrorist. Kim Griest (Manhunter) seems a bit miscast as Jill. I couldn't ever quite connect with why Lowry spends every idle moment dreaming of her. Sam tries to find out everything he can about Jill and is pulled into a crazy tale that may be intermittently fascinating/boring, but is always beautiful to look at.

Robert De Niro brings laughs and intrigue as an air duct repairman who seems to have been marked in the system as a terrorist. Gilliam and his crew were excited to have De Niro on board at first, but as time wore on, they found De Niro's need for "research" and obsession with details increasingly irritating, with Gilliam later recalling that he "wanted to strangle him".

Bob Hoskins has a great time as a government approved repairman who becomes a nightmare for Lowry. Michael Palin from Python has his best film role outside the comedy troupe's films as a government interrogator and old friend of Sam's. As their paths cross again and again, the danger ratchets up to a great final scene. My favorite dialogue between them when they meet by chance near the beginning of the film:

  • Sam: Give my best to Alison and the twins.

  • Jack: Triplets.

  • Sam: Triplets? My how time flies!

While the film definitely rambles a bit during its bloated middle, Gilliam brings everything together beautifully for a final 25 minutes that defies expectations and any predictability.

Gilliam's imagination fills the screen in virtually every shot. Giant air ducts dominate every room in every building in the city. The homes of the wealthy are immense, high ceiling rooms with an insane mix of lux furniture and retro electronics. Every hallway is a mass of squares and rectangles, right angles driving your eye mad in their depth of field.

Life in the city seems to be bogged down in filth and pollution, giving Sam's fantasies of flying through the air on metallic wings, through skies splashed with sunsets and sunrises, incredible visual impact.

Some of the sets would make Ken Adam from the OO7 films jealous in their size and scope. They are jaw dropping.

When Gilliam and Milchan did a first screening for Universal executives, the suits hated the film. They demanded massive edits to it, asking Gilliam to throw out major pieces of the story as it would be "too difficult for normal audiences to follow".

They all saw it as an art piece that would bomb at the multiplex.

Battles over the final cut began and continued for ages, with Universal at one time cutting their own 90 minute version that cut out much of the dark satire and provided a traditional happy ending. Gilliam refused to be part of it.

20th Century Fox released Gilliam's original 142 minute version of the film in Europe where it was well received and performed well at the box office. Universal went against Gilliam's wishes and released their 90 minute "happy" version and it bombed.

Milchan and Gilliam took out trade ads and campaigned for their original version to be released to US. They showed it to the Los Angeles Film Critics and it was officially awarded their "Best Picture", "Best Screenplay", and "Best Director". This prompted Universal to finally agree to release a modified 132-minute version supervised by Gilliam, in 1985. This is the version currently available on iTunes. Gilliam's original 142 minute version is available on Criterion.

BRAZIL isn't one of my favorite films, but I love the visuals. Gilliam's imagination is incredible and every set in the film is crazy, in all the right ways. I've always found Gilliam's films to be sporadically entertaining. They have great moments, long dry spells and then another bucket of genius right around the corner. I admire them, but I don't really enjoy them fully.

Pryce is great here, De Niro is loose and fun and Palin is fantastic in every scene. The film begs for more Jack (Palin) and less Jill (Griest).

One scene, just after Lowry takes his promotion and fights with his office neighbor over their mutual desk is hilarious. The fact that the wall diving their offices splits right down the middle of their desk, a filing cabinet and a poster on the wall cracks me up. The ultimate bureaucracy. That's where the plans said the wall went, so that's where it's going. I also loved the cleaning people in the lobby and man at the reception desk at Lowry's office continuing to work as a massive terrorist battle goes on around them.

These are the moments of Gilliam's madness that stand toe-to-toe with Kubrick and "Dr. Strangelove". There just aren't quite enough of them to make this a true classic.

BRAZIL is a state of mind that earns a B for this weary traveler.

"Don't fight it son. Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating!"

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