CAPSULE: THE FISHER KING (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer

PLOT: A guilt-ridden ex-shock jock discovers he has a tragic connection to a homeless man who believes himself to be a knight questing for the Holy Grail.

Still from The Fisher King (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough, although it has a couple of transcendent moments of magical Arthurian fantasy. As weird titan Terry Gilliam’s most popular and commercial (non-Python) film, it is an important touchstone in weird movie history, however.

COMMENTS: Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King starts out strong, as a karmic drama about creep disc jockey Jack hoist on his own petard of media cynicism. When Robin Williams appears as the junkyard knight Parry, attacking a pair of punks with a garbage can lid and the power of song, it briefly becomes a wacky comedy; then develops into a redemption fable as the relationship between Jack and Parry deepens. Magical realism appears in Parry’s Arthurian hallucinations of fiery knights riding through the streets of New York. These multiple tones actually mesh surprisingly well, until the tale goes errant into the Realms of Rom-com, from whence no sane plot emerges unscathed. It concludes with a happy ending that feels very un-Gilliam; the story requires a happy ending, but this one is too pat, too Hollywood. Maybe it’s all over the map, or maybe The Fisher King just has something for everyone; high drama and mythological touchstones for the art house crowd, comedy and sentimentality for the masses.

Plot and style aside, The Fisher King is an actor’s showcase, anchored not by headliner Robin Williams, but by the excellent Jeff Bridges as a self-centered Jack (a character who inevitably evokes Howard Stern). Bridges is slick and unlovable, admired by the public only for his outrageous cruelty. But because he suffers, and because his guilt is enormous and comes from a core that has not yet been drowned in the oily cynicism that engulfs the rest of the character, we root for him to reform. Williams, of course, is the Fool. Under Gilliam’s direction, he’s restrained so that his berserk improvisatory tendencies never overshadow the story and turn it into a Robin Williams vehicle. The comic still gets plenty of moments, both manic (a nude moonlight dance in Central Park) and mawkish (his romantic stoop speech to Lydia, in which he essentially confesses to being a stalker). Mercedes Ruehl is wonderful as Jack’s long-suffering girlfriend, a typical New York Jewish/Italian mutt in trampy miniskirts. This character, who has attached herself to a down-and-out ex-celebrity, could easily have come across as needy and pathetic, but instead she is strong, sexy and noble. She justifiably won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Of the four major characters, only Plummer disappoints, slightly, and that can be blamed on the screenplay rather than her thesping. Her super-quirky, clumsy love interest role is simply unnecessary, a distraction from the film’s important relationships between Bridges and Williams and Bridges and Ruehl.

Standout moments include the Red Knight rampaging through Central Park, a massive waltz in Grand Central Station, and in a cameo as a “moral traffic light.” Curiously, one of the stylistic inspirations for the film is the Hollywood musical. Williams breaks into show tunes throughout, a fellow homeless man dresses up like Gypsy Rose Lee and does an Ethel Merman song-and-dance number, and the words “the end” even appear in the sky above Manhattan lit up like a Broadway marquee. Though not a musical, that spirit of light fantasy bubbles through the movie, leavening some of the themes of mass murder, alcoholic despondency, and homelessness. Even though The Fisher King has a strong sense of purpose, stylistically it’s more than a bit shaggy around the edges. Perhaps that’s appropriate in a film featuring a madman, and perhaps that makes it more lovable in the end.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…a wild, vital stew of a movie… veers with great assurance from wild comedy to feverish fantasy, robust romanticism and tough realism–with only an occasional stumble.”–David Ansen, Newsweek (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam

FEATURING: , , , , Oliver Reed, Valentina Cortese, , ,

PLOT: As a medieval European city prepares for invasion from a mysterious Sultan, a local theater troupe stages a play about the legendary fabulist Baron Munchausen. Midway into the show, an elderly audience member (Neville) proclaims that the play is all lies and he, the real Munchausen, will explain why. The story that  follows jumps back and forth between fantasy and reality, and flirts with time travel.

Still from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LISTDespite being directed by the weird and wonderful Terry Gilliam, responsible for one baroque fantasy film after another–Twelve Monkeys, The Brothers Grimm, The Fisher King, etc.–The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is wonderful, but not all that weird, at least not for a fantasy film. Like The Wizard of Oz, not every cinematic flight of fancy is necessarily bizarre.

COMMENTSThe hugely expensive Baron Munchausen, which despite being given a very limited theatrical release by its studio (Columbia) and subsequently becoming one of the biggest box-office flops of all time, received critical raves upon its initial release, went on to find the audience it deserved on VHS and DVD. This visually stunning fantasia, like all Gilliam films, is about the line separating fantasy and reality, and—SPOILER ALERT—unlike Gilliam’s much-loved Brazil and Time Bandits, Munchausen manages to pull a surprise happy ending out of its hat at the last moment, which really makes one think this could have been a hit if Columbia had given it a chance. Munchausen is an admittedly episodic adventure that is at times unwieldy and over-the-top, but only in the sense that every penny of its then gigantic $46 million budget is up on the screen. The director’s usual visual invention is complemented by his legendary sense of humor, and by stellar performances all around. Of particular note is Williams’ out-of-control King of the Moon, Reed’s hot-tempered Vulcan, and an 18-year-old Thurman ideally cast as Venus on the half shell (previously the subject of a memorable “Monty Python” animation by Gilliam). The PG-rated Munchausen is a much more family-friendly, accessible and upbeat fantasy than Brazil and makes a fine companion piece to Time Bandits. The movie is such fun that there are little to no on-screen signs that the film was a notoriously troubled production. Any epic picture is undoubtedly difficult to make, but the legendary problems affecting Munchausen are thoroughly and entertainingly explained on the DVD’s 70-minute “behind the scenes” documentary. Also on the DVD is an enlightening commentary with Gilliam and actor/co-writer Charles McKeown, storyboards, a handful of deleted scenes, and, on the Blu-ray, an on-screen “Trivia Track.” The film itself looks and sounds just fine.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“..the movie’s overall movement often seems closer to that of a boiling cauldron than to any logical progression. But this wild spectacle has an energy, a wealth of invention, and an intensity that for my money still puts most of the streamlined romps of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to shame..”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998)

DIRECTED BY: Vincent Ward

FEATURING: , Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr., Max von Sydow

PLOT: A pediatrician dies and goes to paradise, but he’s willing to throw away an eternity of

Still from What Dreams May Come (1998)

bliss to find his wife, who’s trapped in a far less pleasant afterlife.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Majestic visuals make Dreams worth a gander for most, but due to high levels of sugary sentiment it’s contraindicated for diabetic cinephiles.  While it has some unusual moments (and a cool eyeblink cameo from weird icon Werner Herzog as a tormented head), its weirdness isn’t much higher than any other Hollywood-approved fantasy.

COMMENTS:  The romantic afterlife fantasy What Dreams May Come flopped at the box office, but won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  When pediatrician Chris (Robin Williams) dies and goes to heaven, the afterlife manifests as one of his wife’s oil paintings.  Williams (joined by spiritual guide Cuba Gooding Jr.) wanders around inside an incredibly detailed landscape that looks like it was literally created out of paint; when his shoe slips on the mud, it exposes an undercoat of iridescent green and orange. It’s a miraculous mise-en-scène that, by itself, makes the movie worth catching.  Other visuals pack quite a punch as well, especially when the action moves from a prismatic heaven to a gray hell: we watch a horde of swimming dead menacing Chris’s boat, and see him carefully transverse a field where the faces of the damned grow like heads of lettuce.  Unfortunately, the other aspects of the production can’t keep up to the standard set by the visuals, and a vein of sappiness undermines the whole endeavor.   What Dreams was made during the period when Robin Williams was still transitioning from a wacky motormouthed comedian to a “serious” dramatic actor, and he received some praise for this performance at the time; looking back, however, it seems too restrained, as if he’s trying to keep his massive personality in check.  Gooding Jr. tries to compensate for Williams’ surprising lack of energy, and goes over the top a couple of times (I half expected him to shout out, “show me the salvation!”). Annabella Sciorra comes off best, but she needed a Continue reading