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Tuesday, Mar 6, 2007


It’s a film about a famous serial killer with very little murder in it. It’s a story about an iconic crime figure from the late ‘60s/early ‘70s that only eventually gets around to discussing the possible suspects. It’s a police procedural, but it’s the old school kind of cop work. Lots of late nights. Way too many cups of coffee. Offices without fax machines trying to coordinate the jurisdictional division of evidence and information. And it’s a character study, told in triplicate. In each case, an individual who we are introduced to toward the beginning of the story is intrigued, obsessed and then destroyed by the ongoing investigation of a man calling himself Zodiac, and a string of slayings that threaten to go unexplained…and unavenged.


Beginning in December of 1968 and ending in October of 1969, an unknown perpetrator terrorized the Northern region of the state of California, centering most of his activity in and around the San Francisco area. His were motiveless, random crimes – one couple would be shot while they parked, another would be stabbed as they picnicked near Lake Berryessa. As the investigations began, police and the newspapers started receiving letters from the fiend, along with elaborate ciphers that supposedly explained his rationales. It’s these heinous crimes that make up the basis for this film’s storyline, which also follows the involvement of reporter Paul Avery, cartoonist David Graysmith and police Inspectors William Armstrong and David Toschi.


In the hands of any other filmmaker, someone incapable of placing the darkness of the subject matter directly into every scene he or she puts on celluloid, this would be a magnified TV mini-series. We’d get the snippets of nastiness at the start, the fading film star taking on the daring lead role, and anticipate those little forced fade-outs announcing the next commercial break. But in the skilled cinematic grasp of the amazing David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), a case that pales in comparison to California’s other notorious Peace decade murder maelstrom - Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter spree – turns into a concrete reflection of its tenuous times. It uncovers the flaws in pre-technology crime solving while celebrating those willing to sacrifice their mental lives to overcome these investigative chasms.


The first thing Fincher does right is purely aesthetic. He so perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1960s/‘70s setting that you feel completely immersed in the time period’s patina and gloom. And it’s not just the details – the TNT 8 Track player, the viewmaster sitting on an old fashioned counsel television. No, what Fincher finds in the era between analog and digital, footwork and laptops, is the last legitimate signs of a post-War America. Sure, San Francisco is an amazing city, the backdrop for a hundred well-remembered movies. But here, the city’s not so much a character but a stand-in, a metropolitan mock-up waiting for the inevitable evil to start seeping in. From the first senseless killing (the aforementioned couple parked near an overpass) to the last crime we actually see (a cabbie being shot at point blank rage) death is the disease that begins the process of unraveling our slipshod social fabric.


Similarly, Fincher casts the film flawlessly. Looking – and indeed acting – like a young Chris Sarandon, Mark Ruffalo leaves behind an inconsequential career canon to deliver a true star making turn as Inspector David Toschi. With his hair piled into two shoddily parted slabs and a wardrobe that feels slept and perspired in, he’s the symbolic face of the law. He’s concerned. He’s confident. He’s sure that regular old police work will lead to a suspect – and the lack of one is eating him up inside. Every time Ruffalo delivers a line, it’s a lesson in multi-layered performance. No sentence is simple, each statement covered in concerns, fears and undeniable guilt. Also amazing is Robert Downey, Jr., playing the kind of cavalier jock journalist that would come to personify the decade’s Fourth Estate eminence. He’s the sort of reporter who does as much drinking and disagreeing as he does writing. He’s the first indirect victim of the story, a man made and unmade by what he knows – and by the pieces of evidence he doesn’t have.


Then there are the ancillary turns – takes on famous faces (Brian Cox’s brilliant Melvin Belli, a more or less forgotten name in the world of limelight legal personalities) and hardworking underdogs. All throughout Zodiac, Fincher features performers who meld seamlessly, never once coming across as too contemporaneous or outside the era. He’s working off iconography – providing as many human as thematic symbols to illustrate his ideas. Toward the end, when Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Charles Fleischer shows up as a potential suspect, his one time comedic craziness makes a perfect starting point for what ends up being one of the more sinister performances in the entire film. Fincher gets a lot of legitimizing specificity out of these smallish, insignificant roles. They keep Zodiac from slipping into standard, by the book docudrama.


But the real work is put in by Jake Gyllenhaal. His is indeed the hardest part to play. At first, Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith is nothing more than a fly on an already filthy wall. He wants desperately to be part of the editorial process, to add what little knowledge he has to the overall reportage of the case. But as an outsider looking in, he is kept at a distance, and this is a risky move for both actor and auteur. For Gyllenhaal, it makes his third act transformation into a sort of ersatz private eye (Graysmith actually existed, and wrote two books upon which the movie is based) a tricky twist to sell. As for Fincher, it needs to feel liquid and inevitable. Such a shift in personal point of view is always difficult for a director, but in the case of Zodiac, we are dealing with a cold case, no real substantive suspects, and a previous path strewn with equally concerned casualties. Turning a hanger-on into a hero is a tough task to accomplish, but Fincher finds a way to make it work. As a matter of fact, the last half of the film is far creepier than the blood and body scattered opening.


This is indeed a directorial tour de force for the moviemaking maverick, a perfect combination of engaging storyline and intriguing style. Fincher loves to look at life through a distorted, twisted lens, and he employs his signature visual variety here. There are certain shots that just bowl you over with their beauty (a tracking shot which follows a cab on its fateful fare, a look at Gyllenhaal’s car crossing the Golden Gate Bridge) while others announce their intention with obvious conceptualization (the time-lapsed construction of the Transamerica Pyramid to mark the passage of time). Still, it’s the way he handles specific scenes that are the most impressive. When the police finally narrow their focus to a man named Arthur Leigh Allen, his interrogation in a factory’s employee break room absolutely sizzles with squalid suspense. Indeed, much of Zodiac crackles with a kind of corrupt electricity, an overriding feeling of discomfort that makes even the conversations between couples ache with an aura of unease. Even at more than 158 minutes, the movie still feels rushed and ready, always on the brink of breaking under its own sustained stress.


There will be those who bemoan said run time, who recognize the non-ending ending the movie manufactures (we wind up with a theory, but no real closure) and simply shout “sell out!”, but that would really be missing the point. Zodiac was never designed as a whodunit. The clues are not clear enough, and the facts more faded than the memories of the people who survived the killer’s slapdash attacks. Fincher never intends a conclusion. Instead, Zodiac is a clever commentary, a look back at how careless and confounding the criminal justice system could be. A modern audience may scoff at how Toschi’s partner William Armstrong (an extremely solid Anthony Edwards) must maneuver through four different jurisdictions and his own internal red tape just to coordinate the evidence, but that’s the way it was back then. Crime was considered local, and even the most celebrated cases played more importantly to the surrounding constituency. It’s also the reason why they call serial killers the first post-modern murderers. It requires contemporary thinking – and techniques – to stop their reign of terror.


But as Fincher so masterfully reminds us, there was no snarky CSI to save us back then. Convictions were built from the circumstantial inward. Even before the closing credits, the film lets us know that certain facts that we feel are incontrovertible have been placed in substantial doubt by computer matching and DNA testing. But since Fincher’s not trying to find the killer, we really don’t care. Instead, we are mesmerized by a movie that takes its time explaining the impact that fear and frustration have on those assigned to bringing the bad guys to justice. When Ruffalo walks away after his final meeting with Gyllenhaal, the look of peace on his face is genuine. Similarly, when Graysmith finds Allen, all he wants is to keep a promise he made to himself and his wife. Unlike, say, Oliver Stone’s JFK, that hoped to unravel the contradictory conclusion of the Warren Commission to suggest another theory on the assassination of the President, Fincher is fine with Zodiac remaining an enigma. Besides WHAT he was had more of an impact on everyone involved than who he was.


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Monday, Mar 5, 2007


It’s legitimate release limbo out there right now, with most of the big name studio titles taking only tentative steps toward becoming honest to goodness retail fodder. It seems that most major DVD distributors are holding off on delivering the “A” picture goods, waiting for summer to hurry up and re-ignite the interest in motion picture mediocrity. So while we wait for the rest of the Oscar nominated efforts to find their place upon the B&M shelves (only The Queen and Letters to Iwo Jima are left) and wonder what special features will be added to films like The Fountain and Pan’s Labyrinth, here’s an overview of the available entertainment options for 6 March, all just a debit card decision away:


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan


We here at SE&L wish we’d have come up with the comparison, but we’ll give columnist Joe Queenan his due. Make no doubt about it – Sacha Baron Cohen is the new Roberto Benigni, and this so-called ground breaking comedy is the Life is Beautiful of 2006. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this almost instantaneous backlash – it didn’t require a remake of a children’s fairytale to instigate it. No, people who were bowled over by this manipulative mock doc have started crying foul, and once this emperor dropped trou, nothing seemed so satiric anymore. True, there are elements here that remain clever – the Kazakhstan backdrop with its hyper-horrible social stigmas, the world’s first glimpse of man to man ass wrestling – but the ambush aspect of the jokes has definitely turned tepid. This is still a very funny film – thankfully, the ship has sunk on its status as a classic.

Other Titles of Interest


Cinderella Liberty


Made in an era when character alone could drive a narrative, this insightful effort, following a hooker and the sailor who falls for her wounded charms, are high water marks in the careers of James Caan and Marsha Mason. If you can overcome the bleakness of its mid-‘70s vision, you will be rewarded with amazing performances and lots of emotional truth.

Fast Food Nation


You really don’t want to know what goes on behind the counter at your favorite nationally recognized hamburger chain – at least, that’s what author Eric Schlosser and director Richard Linklater are counting on. Using the scribe’s scandalous factual exposé about the industry as the basis for their fictional story, the duo drive a stake directly into the heart of America’s obsession with convenience cuisine.

Let’s Go to Prison


Want to fully understand the state of big screen comedy? Take a gander at this amazingly unappealing so-called send-up. Granted, jail is a regular jokefest, especially when you consider the multiple variations on “don’t drop the soap” that are available. Taking individualistic idiotic irony to its most painful extremes, there is not a single significant snicker to be found in this magnificently mediocre movie.

The Manitou


When Jaws mania turned William Girdler’s wildlife rip-off Grizzly into boffo box office, the exploitationeer parlayed that popularity into this attempted mainstream macabre. Starring Tony Curtis and Stella Stevens, Mr. Day of the Animals devised a surreal storyline involving a psychic, his glam gal pal, and a growth on her back that just might be the reincarnation of a demonic Native American spirit. As weird as it sounds.

Peter Pan: Platinum Edition


Though they haven’t done a lot right recently, there was a time when Disney drilled animated takes on classic kid fare like this right out of the cinematic stadium. Watching this movie a half-century later, it’s easy to see why. Instead of concentrating all its efforts on micromanaging a movie to fit every demographic, the original House of Mouse just wanted to entertain. They do so magnificently here.


And Now for Something Completely Different
King Kong Fu


Okay, here’s another clear case of a title telling the entire story – or at least, indicating SE&L‘s interest in this relatively unknown release. To read the write-up for this 1976 stinker, a Chinese gorilla skilled in the marital arts (aren’t all apes so gifted???) runs ramshackle over an overwhelmed Wichita, Kansas community. He eventually kidnaps Rae Fay and climbs the highest building in the city – a Holiday Inn. Are you laughing yet? If it sounds like one of those classic So-BIG efforts (a movie “so bad, it’s good”), a few unlucky critics have some sobering news for you. One considers it so awful, it requires immediate cinematic vivisection. Others lament the lack of any discernible talent among cast or crew. Whatever the case may be, there is still something absolutely adorable about that name. And the cover art kicks butt, too.

 


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Sunday, Mar 4, 2007


We Americans apparently love our crap. Give us cinematic Sauvignon and we’d rather swill sickly blockbuster Boone’s Farm. Case in point – the repugnant Wild Hogs, a movie made for a common denominator lower than the lowest one on record. This midlife crisis suburbanite biker garbage raked in $38 million big ones over the 2 March weekend. It bested the police procedural perfection of David Fincher’s Zodiac and took new boy on the block Craig Brewer back to the sophomore slump woodshed with his exploitation attempt, Black Snake Moan. Yes, when offered filet, or at least something that closely resembles some manner of non-processed animal by product, we immediately queue up for the aesthetic-clogging junk.


Just look back over the last month or so. Everyone had Eddie Murphy pegged as the next Denzel Washington, ready to finally find some Oscar love at the end of his rollercoaster career (and personal life) rainbow. Then an unfunny hemorrhoid named Norbit came crashing into your local Cineplex, dragging the comedian’s Academy chances down to the level of the film’s toilet-based wit. While some can argue that the site of a nominee dressed up as a culture’s worst ethnic nightmares had no affect on his Best Supporting Actor chances, it couldn’t have helped. Even as Mr. Murphy stormed out of the Kodak Theater (allegedly), he had his massive bank account (aided by the film’s $75 million take), not the annual victor’s party, to laugh – and fume - all the way to.


It’s hard to see why the comic should care. Everyone should be as lucky as to have his audience appeal. His Teflon talents are apparently so non-stick that he can send the cause of racism back 275 years and still walk away a bankable star. All an Oscar can do is turn him into Cuba Gooding and/or Lou Gossett, Jr. Besides, he knows that his demographic prefers Velveeta to Gruyere. Shrek, Dr. Doolittle, and Daddy Day Care prove that fact. So there’s no reason to worry about a lack of professional legitimacy. As long as the money keeps pouring in, the child support payments will be met and all will be right in the materialistic Murphy universe.


Similarly, Nicholas Cage can calm down as well. His long festering comic book caper Ghost Rider has been trying to deflect a dozen months of bad buzz on its way to an early Spring opening (or what many in Hollywood used to consider the scheduling equivalent of the kiss of death). Even the confirmed geeks over at Ain’t It Cool News couldn’t drum up the usual “be there, cause you’re square” kind of support for this graphic novel nonsense. But thanks to an omnipresent trailer that seemed to be playing constantly since Tom Brady last won a Super Bowl, and clips that focused on Cage’s “good old boy, American Chopper-lite” persona, the satellites surrounding NASCAR nation turned out in droves. 


Actually, that’s not fair. It was cellphone-addicted adolescent retards that drove both of these films. As a matter of fact, it’s teens in general, not film lovers or cinema snobs, that drive the movie business’ heavily insured SUV. Want to know why the unreasonably reviled Titanic still sits among the top grossing films of all time? Just ask your hormonally hopped up wannabe fame whore. Though she will probably admit to the passing fancy – just like her previous worshipping of boy bands…and personal integrity – it was indeed her allowance dollars that crowned James Cameron king. It’s the same with the pleasant Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Girls get to swoon over Johnny Depp’s dark eyeliner and Orlando Bloom’s blushing baby face, while the boys can tap their testosterone with either energetic swordplay, or Keira Knightley.


Oh, and we can’t forget families – those nasty little nuclear units that still believe fruit leather is part of the reconfigured food group pyramid (next to Lunchables, right?). They REALLY love a fat laden filmic repast. When reviewing the highest grossing movies of 2006, over 50% are geared toward the tots. There was Cars ($244 million), Night at the Museum ($205 million), Ice Age: The Meltdown ($195 million), the $190 million Oscar winner Happy Feet (take that, better CGI entries) and Over the Hedge ($155 million). Even more interesting, when looking over #s 11 through 20, not a single kiddie flick can be found. So the answer is obvious – if you want a few more greenbacks in your commercial coffers, make sure the wee ones are part of your production design.


By catering almost exclusively to the two demographics that support the vast majority of moviemaking profits, the studios feel empowered. The gamble of manufacturing a motion picture gets a little less risky, and returns can be almost guaranteed when buffered by DVD and merchandising tie-ins. Certainly there are examples that buck this carefully micromanaged trend (Lucas’ Star Wars romps, Jackson’s magnificent Lord of the Rings films), and art can frequently find a place on the standard motion picture menu (The Departed, for example). But by in large, the mega-multinational monoliths who overshadow the rest of the media landscape prefer to pay their bills by delivering prepackaged product that goes down easily and leaves no biting or bitter creative aftertaste.


Thus we have a 2007 movie season looming with retreads, sequels and more examples of Wild Hogs harmless hamburger helper. There is nothing wrong with embracing a mindless mid-life crisis picture featuring actors who have all done, and really should all know better, but just like restaurants, Tinsel Town can’t thrive on gourmet fare only. If all you gave the people was Pan’s Labyrinth, or The Prestige, they may be better nourished, aesthetically. But McDonald’s has been around more than half a century for a reason. We apparently want, nay CRAVE, the entertainment equivalent of comfort foods. The Fountain may seem like substantive cinematic sustenance, but all the populace really requires is a tempting Talladega Nights taco or two.


In his recent book on the movie biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet argues that audiences today love mediocrity – indeed, prefer it to artistry or innovation. “The very vacuousness of these films is reassuring”, he states, going on to argue that such shared disappointment creates a kind of communal bond. It’s the same with our varying tastes in vittles. We will occasionally venture out into the world of fiery foreign (film) foodstuffs, or indulge in a bit of eclectic (indie) fare. Yet if there were movie Mac and cheese being served up at our favorite burger joint/Bijou, we’d rather have a super-sized serving of same.


Call it the concept of the collective consciousness experience (people still argue that any genre of film – horror, comedy, actioner – is better when seen with a crowd) or a desire to follow along with the rest of the fad gadget front (can’t be left out of what your fellow filmgoers feel is a cash-worthy creation), but it adds up to one clear conceit – American audiences readily prefer a diet high in saturated stupidity and sugar-laced silliness. They fancy it over a banquet featuring intelligence, wit or authentic emotion. And since it’s impossible to completely cleanse one’s personal preference palate, we will continue to see junk like Wild Hogs (or, perhaps, the upcoming Blades of Glory) dominating the top of the charts.


And what about the more rarified offerings? All one can say is bon voyage, bon appetite.


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Saturday, Mar 3, 2007


Claire Ward, the bewildered wife of famed chemical engineer Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon) hires private detective John Marsh (John Terry) to find out what her husband is up to. After a seemingly idyllic time as man and wife, Ward has suddenly left home, and now the police are investigating him. There are rumors of grave robbing, the importation of human remains, and disgusting smells coming out of his country home. When Marsh looks into the allegations, all he can find is a belligerent and decidedly formal man who appears a shadow of his former socialite self.


Eventually, the truth is discovered. After inheriting some books and papers from a dead relative, Ward has taken to alchemy. With his newfound powers, he hopes to perfect the art of soul swapping and acquirable immortality. Digging deeper, Marsh discovers that Ward may not even be the man he claims he is. Instead, he could be The Resurrected—that is, the reanimated spirit of a black magician from centuries ago that has inhabited the body of this modern man.


It’s a shame old H.P. Lovecraft had to go and die all those years ago (in 1937, to be exact). Had he hung around long enough to see the invention of the modern movie macabre, he could have cleaned up financially, what with all the residual checks he’d be owed and lawsuits he’d win for the use, “borrowing,” and outright stealing of the plots and particulars of his unique brand of weird fiction. He is responsible for Azathoth, Cthulhu, Dagon, and the Deep Ones. He has also told the tales of Herbert West and the Necronomicon.


Like Poe, he’s inspired countless authors, from Robert Bloch and Stephen King to Clive Barker, and like all writers of fright and fear, he has been belittled and criticized for his vague neo-Victorian way with his monsters and moralizing. You can almost tell a Lovecraftian work by the facets of its forming—ancient rituals, demonic entities, human alienation, and murky, muddled mysteries. You are also almost guaranteed that any movie made of his oeuvre will be middling at best, with only a rare example (Re-Animator, From Beyond) making any real horror headway.


For most of its running time however, The Resurrected is a good little efficient fright flick. It sets up a plausible premise (a wife seeking information on her secretive husband), an engaging set of characters, and a finale that fulfills the promise of all that preceded it. This doesn’t mean the movie is perfect. Indeed, it drags in spots and can’t seem to get over a middle act desire to over-explain everything. We even get an extended flashback that’s more exposition than excitement. Yet thanks to director Dan O’Bannon’s foundation in fear, we arrive at an intense little thriller with dread and disgust to match.


Many may not have heard of O’Bannon. He made his name mostly as a scriptwriter, working on Alien, Dark Star, Dead and Buried, and Lifeforce. His sole other directorial turn was with the hugely successful—and quite good—The Return of the Living Dead. So Dan knows his nastiness, and he really does deliver here. Aside from a truly splattery ending which involves one of those classic full-blown full body transformation freakouts, the movie’s main set piece takes place in an underground catacomb filled with “failed experiments”—combinations of badly put-together body parts that have been “reanimated.” Using both grotesque effects (including some very effective stop-motion work) and time-honored cinematic trickery (unpredictable flashlights, a dwindling book of matches), we get a sequence that recalls the best of European fright fests—the mixing of the mechanical with the messy with lots and lots of inherent eeriness.


Indeed, much of The Resurrected plays like those Italian geek gorefests of the ‘80s and ‘90s. O’Bannon uses a similar matter-of-fact style, presenting his narrative in easily digestible hunks of clarification. The characters are uncomplicated and well defined, and the acting is low-key and logical. Even Chris Sarandon, who has the tendency to be over-the-top and hammy, plays Ward (and his ancient ancestor) with a nice combination of control and creepiness. In reality, if The Resurrected has one minor flaw, it’s the measured manner in which the movie mixes mystery and macabre. Lovecraft usually posed his prose in the form of a whodunit, and screenwriter Brent Friedman spends as much time on clues and hints as he does on horror. Fans used to a Re-Animator-style chaotic bloodletting may be bored. But those who stick it out will be rewarded with an atmospheric and weird experience. Like many lost movies of the early ‘90s, The Resurrected deserves a second look. It’s a wonderfully wicked little film.


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Friday, Mar 2, 2007


Ask any film fan what his favorite Terry Gilliam movie is, and you’re likely to get a series of startlingly dissimilar answers. Most will mention Brazil or his breakthrough film, Time Bandits. Others will cite the mainstream hits The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys. You’ll get a few squirrelly responses – aficionados lodging votes for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jabberwocky, or the recently released (and quite polarizing) Tideland. But you almost never hear the director’s devotees championing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Dismissed in a manner similar to his attempted blockbuster, 2005’s The Brothers Grimm, many find his work on said epic a confluence of excess and extremes that never fully comes together as a cohesive cinematic statement.


They would be wrong. Perhaps the most breathlessly original work the filmmaker would ever oversee, Gilliam’s attempted visualization of the famed Germanic folk hero and his infamous gift of exaggeration remains his masterpiece, a completely flawed and overpoweringly brilliant work of pure motion picture art. Yet because it has such a jaded history, many look on it as the Heaven’s Gate of its time. It was the kind of over publicized failure that gave its supporting studio (Columbia) a massive mainstream (and media) headache. It was poorly reviewed, misunderstood by a critical community waiting to pounce on the filmmaker for his noted outrageousness. Some could even argue that it was payback for the whole Brazil battle. After going to bat for his vision on that myopic bit of future shock, journalists perhaps grew tired of carrying the commercial mantle for the notoriously prickly ex-pat Python.


Whatever the case, what was blasted back in 1988 as overdone and dull becomes the fantasy film equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey in light of a new, post-millennial mentality. While he can argue all he wants to about the inclusion of this film in his Ageism Trilogy (with Time Bandits representing youth and Brazil marking middle age), what Gilliam really accomplished here is the defining of the very boundaries of the cinematic craft. Recognizable spectacles wish they had this film’s scope. Carefully crafted works of high concept CGI long to be as inventive and imaginative. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, with its sole reliance on physical effects, represents craftsmanship at a level superior to those being forged out of bitrates and motherboards. As a matter of fact, the vector-mapping individuals who call themselves artists should step aside and allow a true visionary to pass. Just as Kubrick did with his serious space opera, Gilliam gave the motion picture flight of fancy its brash, brazen benchmark.


But there is more to the movie than just gorgeous shots (Venus rising on the half shell, our characters falling into Vulcan’s volcanic lair) and remarkable ideas. Gilliam has always fancied himself a latter day Don Quixote, battling the worn out windmills of a film business based solely around reasonable returns and the bottom line. In Baron Munchausen, he finds a firm soul mate, the kind of blind-eyed dreamer whose age and appearance is literally affected by his amazing adventures (or lack thereof). In the character, a man at war with both the marauding Turkish army as well as the bumbling bureaucrats trying to moderate the maelstrom, the perfect parallel is drawn to the director. As he steps out onto the cinematic battlefield to confront the daily barrage of moviemaking issues, he must also take on the tightfisted moneymen who determine his entire aesthetic fate.


There is much more to the behind the scenes story of Munchausen‘s making (and eventual post-production unmaking) than can be covered in a single review. As a matter of fact, author Andrew Yule did a remarkable job of exposing the story with his fascinating behind the scenes book Losing the Light. What’s most important about everything that happened – the failed financial backing, the complicated shoot on the fabled backlot of Italy’s Cinniceta Studios, the numerous natural (and unnatural) disasters – is that, through all the stumbling and/or road blocks, Gilliam still managed to make the best movie of his career. Taking the Baron’s fairytale-type story, he was able to merge myth with mediocrity, age with artificiality, and the soulful with the scientific. The result is a film that constantly battles for symbolic substance while generating megatons of major thematic resonance.


The plot, which pits Munchausen against the stifling city fathers who want to negotiate a kind of impossible peace, is combined with an even more unlikely journey to discover our hero’s superhuman servants. One valet is the fastest man on the planet (when locating him, we go from the Turk’s heavenly harem to the King of the Moon’s own pleasure palace), another possesses all the strength in the world (he’s found at the center of the Earth). The other two amazing members of the team – a flawless sharpshooter and a dwarf with amazing hearing and lungpower – are located inside a series of shipwrecks, themselves located within a massive sea creature at the bottom of the ocean. From outer space to the belly of the beast, Gilliam makes sure to venture to each and every one of these remarkable locales. Using any and every thing at his disposal to realize his vision, we find ourselves sitting in eye-opening wonder, waiting for the next awe-inspiring moment to occur.


And occur they do. During the introductory material that opens the movie, Munchausen’s fleet-footed manservant (played by Gilliam’s Python pal Eric Idle) races halfway around the world for a bottle of Port. The narrative is brought to life with stunning detail and delight. When the Baron voyages to the moon in an air balloon made out of lady’s bloomers, the juxtaposition between stormy and still waters, and eventually sandy shores, is just overpowering. But the biggest surprise comes at the end when, hoping to save the city, an elderly Munchausen and his equally old friends wage war one last time, each one utilizing their special skill to defeat the Turk once and for all. From its completely unique storytelling structure (it’s kind of like a play within a fable within a film) to the last act twist that reframes the film’s many eclectic elements, Gilliam proves that there is more to his directorial prowess than pretty pictures and incontrovertible imagery.


With its pitch perfect cast (including an amazing John Neville as the title character) and a delightful denseness that allows for multiple viewings – and meanings – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen stands as the moment when Terry Gilliam announced his importance as filmmaker to the rest of the world. Where Brazil can appear like an ego unleashed, and Fisher King can feel like a purposeful pulling back to sustain a successful career, this blithe and joyful journey into a world of unadulterated inventiveness is poised to stand the test of time. It may take a bit – even Kubrick was labeled a kook before his look at man’s place in the universe scored an eventual Best Ever rating. If greatness was determined on talent alone, all of Gilliam’s movies would be extraordinary. But there is something about this film that transcends an easy classification. And that’s a true sign of long term artistic excellence.


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