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Thursday, July 6, 2006

A classic, or just crazy?


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Running time: 117 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 8
[See Japan Times movie listings]

If you know the name Terry Gilliam, then you're obviously aware that any film with his name on it isn't going to be business as usual. Gilliam has made his name with films full of weirdness, whimsy and wonder. And if you've seen, say, Robin Williams' giant flying head in a castle on the moon (in "The Adventures Of Baron Munchhausen"), or the cosmetic surgery gone awry of "Brazil," then you know that Gilliam is perfectly happy to be as mad as he wants to be. This is, after all, a man who could take Brad Pitt and cast him as a jibbering lunatic in "12 Monkeys."

News photo
Alone after her parents die of drug overdoses, Jeliza Rose (Jodelle Ferland), occupies her time chatting with her friend, Barbie the doll-head.

1998's "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas," an adaptation of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson's drug-addled spree through that city's casinos and hotels, looked to be the high-water mark of Gilliam's repertoire of dreamers and madmen. That film, true to the hallucinatory novel, went so far off the deep end at times that it was hard to imagine going any further. This feeling seemed reinforced by last year's "Brothers Grimm," the most conservative (and least interesting) Gilliam film yet.

So it's with some surprise that "Tideland," an adaptation of a Mitch Collins novel best described as a Southern Gothic "Alice In Wonderland," turns out to be Gilliam's most bizarre work to date: more disturbing than "Fear And Loathing"; more "nutso" than "The Fisher King." Gilliam fans are of course used to the fevered imagination of the director, and love him for it. Yet I suspect that even many of them will be wrong-footed by "Tideland," much the way David Lynch fans were by the very appropriately titled "The Straight Story."

J. Hoberman of The Village Voice has called "Tideland" "almost unwatchable, and certainly unreleasable," but then again, people said the same things about "Eraserhead." "Tideland" may well be destined to become a cult classic, and I suspect its reputation will grow with time.

The most likely initial reaction, however, will be one of bewilderment. The story starts off in an amped-up version of the "real world," like a backward "Wizard Of Oz," where Oz falls down into Kansas. Jeff Bridges (Gilliam's star in "The Fisher King") plays an aging, fading rock singer, Noah. He's a dissolute man, but one who loves his daughter, Jeliza Rose (Jodelle Ferland), very much. Jeliza's mother, Queen Gunhilda (a gone-to-seed Jennifer Tilly), is less affectionate, to say the least: a total harpy who spends her days in bed gorging herself on chocolate and forcing Jeliza to give her foot massages. She's a grotesque caricature (supposedly modeled on Courtney Love), the wicked stepmother of so many fairy tales, and 100 percent Gilliamesque.

Both parents have Jeliza prepare their heroin fixes, with Noah telling her, "Time for daddy to go on a little vacation." It's the first of several shocking scenes the film has to offer, but also one with a point. It shows the adults relying on destructive substances to enter a land of dreams, while little Jeliza -- like many a child left on their own -- enters the world of her imagination for escape. Whether reading Lewis Carroll, talking to the Barbie-doll heads she's turned into finger-puppets or conversing with rabbits and squirrels, Jeliza -- like so many Gilliam protagonists -- is able to create fantasies to ameliorate her reality.

When Mom O.D.s, Dad flees with Jeliza, saying they'll go to grandma's house. When they arrive there, they find a run-down, uninhabited old farmhouse, alone amid fields of rolling wheat. Noah decides to "take another vacation," and doesn't come back from this one. Jeliza, unclear that daddy's not going to wake up, has to fend for herself. Soon she meets Dell (Janet McTeer), a black-clad, one-eyed woman who comes off like the Wicked Witch of the West, and her retarded brother Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), who lives in an imaginary submarine and hunts what he thinks are sharks (actually, passing trains.) Meanwhile, daddy is bloating and collecting flies.

"Tideland" delivers a cocktail that's hard to swallow, but goes straight to your head. The mix of "girly" stuff -- playing with dolls, trying on makeup and wigs in the mirror, squealing with glee while rolling in the grass -- with elements of the grotesque and macabre (wait till you see what happens to Noah's corpse) is a combination that will leave many viewers flummoxed. Gilliam will frequently push conflicting buttons at the same time, like in a scene where the horrific aftermath of a train wreck is infused with a swarm of beautifully twinkling fireflies.

The whole story is seen from the perspective of a little girl who finds herself in unusual circumstances, and lives through them as if in a fairy tale. Accordingly, Jodelle Ferland gives a perfectly naturalistic performance, while every other actor goes entirely larger-than-life. This is as it should be; Fletcher, in particular, manages to be both sympathetic, fascinating and more than a little scary.

Halfway through the film, you'll find yourself wondering, is it just going to be Jeliza Rose talking to her doll-heads for the next hour? The film's pace does flag a bit, but wait: before you know it, the tension creeps up on you, and things get quite twisted indeed. What's inside Dell's mysterious shed? What does Dell plan to do with Noah? What is the secret Dickens wants to show Jeliza? And is she safe with this man, who is mentally close to her age but a very confused soul? You realize you have no idea where the story is going, and you start to worry that it's going to spiral off in disturbing directions.

"Tideland" messes with your head, and it makes you look closely at the borderline between imagination and insanity. It strikingly contrasts childhood innocence with adult corruption, and imaginative creation with pointless destruction. It will make you laugh, cry, cringe, sigh, and, when it's over, wonder what in hell just hit you. In a word: Gilliam.

Read the interview
Through the looking glass with Gilliam

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