Archive for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Schnooks on a Plane

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2011 by dcairns

In-flight movies — perhaps these are the ultimate justification for Hollywood pabulum. Anesthetic for the tense traveler. When you’re cramped in your seat and anxious about your untenable position hurtling through the stratosphere, it would be nice to be rapt out of yourself by dramatic catharsis, but it AIN’T HAPPENING (although I would welcome with keen interest and incredulity any stories of mid-air catharsis you have to offer) so you settle for the numbing tedium of badly thought-out genre bullshit –

PERCY JACKSON AND THE LIGHTNING THIEF

Not only have they made a Harry Potter rip-off based on a rip-off novel, they’ve got Christopher Columbus who made the first two HARRY POTTER films to direct it. That’s just like stamping the word SAP on the forehead of every child who buys a ticket, isn’t it?

Terrible dross, and all I can say in my defense is that I’m working on a project with some mythological elements so I wanted to see what the kids are thinking about myth these days. Some cute moments — using an i-phone camera to observe the Medusa without getting petrified is neat. Uma Thurman has gone from Venus in BARON MUNCHAUSEN to Medusa in this — a pithier charting of the leading lady’s career arc than even Sondheim has given us.

There’s something irresistibly hilarious about the idea of Pierce Brosnan as a centaur, something the film is completely unaware of. None of the actors playing gods make much impression except Steve Coogan, doing what he does. Zeus is Sean Bean, who made Tolkien sound credible but is screwed when he has to say “You have done well,” as opposed to “Well done.” Look, it’s Kevin McKidd — as with 300, you can’t do ancient Greeks without casting a Scotsman. Now, I’ve never seen a real ancient Greek but I’ve seen the modern variety, several times, and none of them looked like Scotsmen. “It’s the magic of the movies!” you cry.

CAPTAIN AMERICA THE FIRST AVENGER

Perfectly adequate up to the two-third mark: this Chris Evans fellow is quite sweet, and the wimp-to-ubermensch narrative is engaging, the action lucid (oh, you mock Joe Johnston, don’t you, but in his fight scenes you can SEE WHAT’S HAPPENING — feel the nostalgia!) and the supporting players mainly do what they’ve been contracted for. Tommy Lee Jones is gruff, Stanley Tucci is solemn, Toby Jones is short. For a while, Haley Atwell is suitably prim, but when called upon to restage the start of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, her inability to pull off anything else except pulchritude punctures the pathos. Hugo Weaving provides the entertainment with a Werner Herzog impersonation and hilarious little facial reactions, soon subsumed in a splurge of CG as he rips his own face off to become The Red Skull.

THE INFORMANT!

Continental Air likes to provide a couple of oldies and a couple of indies to its transatlantic clientele, so we get this recent-ish Soderbergh (it was this or GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? and I was actually up for that, but then I felt that I wanted to actually do it justice). Matt Damon always seemed kind of a schlub-in-the-making, and here he gets to play an actual Philip Seymour Hoffman role, and he’s splendid. I haven’t followed Soderbergh religiously — asides from his Spalding Gray bio last year, AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE, I haven’t seen anything since half of THE GOOD GERMAN (it wasn’t good) and bits of OCEAN’S TWELVE. I should catch up sometime, this was funny and clever. Soderbergh’s ludic side (cf SCHIZOPOLIS) is allowed just enough room to breath by the quietly demented voice-over, a calm recitation of delusions, non-sequiturs and stray pub facts.

The Vomitorium of Dr Narcissus

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by dcairns

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As a Gilliamite of yore, I was of course looking forward to THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS, despite snooty reviews in the British press (who complained that BRAZIL “lacked originality”) and despite the calamity of star Heath Ledger’s death. I like Gilliam and I like what he does, the only serious exception being THE BROTHERS GRIMM, where the constant tampering of the Weinstein Brothers grimmer could be blamed for much of the film’s tired and witless drag.

Having found a radical solution to his star’s death — replacing Ledger, when he goes through the magic mirror, with three other A-list stars — Gilliam seemed to have once more completed a film more or less the way he wanted it completed, which is the way it should be. The trouble is… or the trouble seems to be… that Gilliam needs a stronger script collaborator to funnel his gushing mind towards some desirable destination. Writing with actor Charles McKeown, who collaborated on BRAZIL and MUNCHAUSEN, Gilliam has an old friend to back him up. But perhaps its significant that BRAZIL also benefited from the dramaturgical prowess of Tom Stoppard, a man who knows a thing about structure, and MUNCHAUSEN, though far more shapeless (agreeably so, for the most part) did have the original tales to fall back on.

In DR PARNASSUS we get pretty much undiluted Gilliam creation, spilling out over the screen as if he simply unlocked his forehead and a stream of molten imagination came spewing out of his brainhole, bathing us all in its steaming ichor. As delightful as that sounds, the effect is self-nullifying because there’s no base of story to support it. There’s not even a coherent premise. Nor is there a structure, a main character (and this has nothing to do with Ledger’s demise), a theme, message, internal logic or valid satiric angle. It’s soup.

[Parnassus sends unsuspecting members of the public into a world he creates with his mind, where they have to make mysterious choices, resulting in either salvation (of some unspecified kind) or damnation (literal death and falling into the hands of the Devil). This makes Parnassus not a so terribly nice guy, in my book. But the victims of his show are one-dimensional class stereotypes, proles and toffs, and we're not encouraged to give two shits about them. And the mysterious choices made in this airless green-screen world make no sense to me: a bunch of Russian gangsters are damned for wanting to be with their mother in the Old Country. The desire for a one-night stand with Johnny Depp is considered worthy of damnation. Hell with that.]

Much of the imagery is gorgeous, and there’s a lot of it. I loved the monastery where Parnassus first meets the Devil — an impossibly sculptural Himalayan folly full of levitating monks — and the film’s use of London as backdrop is often beautiful It’s been an age since I’ve seen a London-set film which showcased it’s locations as if they were interesting (most London-based filmmakers are bored of London and bored of film — Gilliam, whatever his vices, is not). But the only times the film felt like it had any control over its own effects was (1) the Johnny Depp cameo — Depp just makes things focus, he reduces every other element to scene-setting, and blasts the clutter away — and (2) a sequence when the imaginary world of a charity ball / awards ceremony starts to break apart: the sudden rifts of black space provide abrupt and truly welcome relief from the mass of meaningless detail that’s been fighting for our attention.

It’s tempting to simply assume that the star’s death threw the project off course, and that’s certainly a possibility — it must have been an awful thing to face. But Ledger was never at the centre of the story, unless some massive rewriting has gone on. There’s no centre. Parnassus seems like he should be the key character, since he at least has a goal — saving his daughter from the devil. But he spends much of the action in a trance, drunk, or narrating unnecessary flashbacks. The excess screen time is scooped up by Ledger, who may in fact be the villain, and by young Andrew Garfield (clearly talented but trying too hard). Ledger is called Tony and Garfield plays Anton, which suggests some kind of duality or connection, but none emerges.

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We also have Lily Cole, an unusually structured supermodel with an apple for a head — she’s unquestionably beautiful, and gives a creditable performance, but it’s not in synch with anyone else’s. Plummer bellows and drools like Lear, Garfield is tricks and tics, and Verne Troyer delivers his lines by rote, or from the world’s smallest autocue.** Gilliam has often thrown together unlikely combinations of British and American talent (plus the occasional Italian or Australian), but this time the sense of a troupe just isn’t there. Amid all the shouting and showing off, Cole’s more muted work is very welcome.

Maybe this will play better a second time around? TIME BANDITS improved for me on reviewing, as did MUNCHAUSEN and JABBERWOCKY. But my favourites, BRAZIL and TWELVE MONKEYS, were immediately successful on pretty much every level. I haven’t seen anything this bad from Gilliam since THE BROTHERS GRIMM, where at least he had the excuse of appalling executive interference. But that misbegotten project shares with this one a glaring flaw that has nothing to do with budgetary limitations or studio supervision or behind-the-scenes tragedy: very poor dialogue.

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I do think perhaps the film was more unfinished at the time of Ledger’s death than has been suggested. The movie takes ages to get going, with endless digressions into flashback and introductions of unnecessary subplots. The strange symbols written on Ledger’s forehead are never explained. I’m reminded of the John Landis episode of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, where what seems like a botched bit of writing is simply the result of a patch-up job on the available footage shot before the star’s death. In both cases, what might have made a moving and evocative fragment (Do I perhaps love fragments more than I love complete films?) has become a dead and disjointed “completed work,” made not for audiences but for the insurers.

*I’ve heard that Troyer has a bodyguard, who is also a little person. But an incredibly muscular one. I love this.

Congruence #2: Entrances

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 19, 2009 by dcairns

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A kind Shadowplayer sent me a copy of Thorold Dickinson’s SECRET PEOPLE, which features the first major performance by Audrey Hepburn, so always gets a sort of footnote position in the history books, but deserves better. A rather downbeat tale of terrorism and espionage, it stars Valentina Cortese as Hepburn’s big sister, lured into an assassination plot by her lover, Serge Reggiani. The film has an unusual narrative, perhaps not entirely successful in its jumps and re-starts, but intriguing to watch. The biggest narrative surprise is when the bomb plot is set in motion, and Dickinson then cuts to the aftermath. Reggiani, like the audience, is desperate to know what happened.

Cortese. standing at the window of her London flat, begins to tell him.

As she talks, she moves left –

– and walks into the flashback she just started to narrate.

It’s a startling transition, and all the more striking when you imagine how it must have been shot. Dickinson would have had the bedroom set constructed next to the terrace where the party is unfolding, a dreamlike conjunction of entirely separate places.

There are a few uses of this kind of technique elsewhere in cinema. Dickinson might conceivably have been influenced by the moment in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP where Roger Livesey swims back in time forty years in a single continuous shot. But it just occurred to me that he would have made a point of seeing LA RONDE, since it stars Anton Walbrook, directed by Dickinson in two of his best perfs (GASLIGHT, THE QUEEN OF SPADES). And in the five-minute opening shot of LA RONDE, Walbrook walks from a nocturnal Viennese street onto a theatre stage somehow erected in the midst of it, back onto the street, which then becomes a movie studio, then a street again, then daylight, then night again…

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And then there’s this moment in THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, where the Baron begins to narrate his tall tale from the stage of a theatre. He speaks of the Turkish court and its seraglio. Gilliam cuts to an actor playing the Great Turk being shepherded onto the stage –

But as he enters, we find it’s a real Turkish harem, and the actor is now therefor a real Great Turk. We’re inside Munchausen’s tale, having not just moved back in time, but into a slightly more slippery form of reality, the lie-truth of a Munchausen memory, and again we’ve done it without a cut or dissolve.

The effect, like the film, is somewhat Felliniesque, but Gilliam’s trick  shot does feel akin to Dickinson’s, and it’s thus interesting to note that both SECRET PEOPLE and MUNCHAUSEN feature Valentina Cortese, who for Gilliam plays the Queen of the Moon (a giantess with a detachable head). Did Gilliam check out some of her earlier work and get inspired?

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Thanks to Susan VandenBergh for SECRET PEOPLE.

UK shoppers: The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (20th Anniversary Edition) [DVD] [1988]

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