Tag Archives: Sarah Polley

CAPSULE: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1988)

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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: SPLICE (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Vincenzo Natali

FEATURING: Adrien Brody, , Delphine Chanéac

PLOT: When two geneticists (Brody and Polley) mix some human DNA into a cloning

Still from Splice (2010)

experiment, they end up with a rapidly aging chimera child whom neither of them can control.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite some bizarre mutation imagery, most of the film remains solidly within the realm of the horror-infused family melodrama, and tends to be more icky than weird.

COMMENTS: Canadian writer-director Natali, best known for his low-budget thriller Cube, has created a love letter to mad scientist stories, from Frankenstein to Cronenberg’s The Fly.  All the expected clichés are present and accounted for, from the sterile, blue-tinted milieu of industrial science right down to the Jurassic Park-worthy mantra of “What’s the worst that could happen?”  In Splice, however, these trappings are refashioned to create a demented parable about the dangers of bad parenting, and much of the film’s commentary in this vein is delightfully on-target.  The scientific method gets entangled with the geneticists’ emotional hang-ups as they try to raise the part-human Dren (Chanéac).  This results in hilarious exchanges like one where Brody cries, “Specimens need to be contained!” and Polley responds, “Don’t call her that!”

However, as the story moves from the laboratory to a rural farmhouse, the film realizes its unpleasantly taboo-violating trajectory.  From there on in, the film trades its humorous insights in for gross-outs and gore, with a climax so unnecessarily vile it makes you want to take a shower while bemoaning its reductive view of gender. Still, Splice has a lot to offer the weird movie fan, as certain images, such as a press conference that becomes a bloodbath or Dren’s development into a bald, feral adolescent, won’t soon be forgotten.  Like his characters, Natali is a kind of mad scientist, deftly integrating the pains of child rearing into an age-old sci-fi premise; maybe next time, there’ll be a little more method to his madness.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s fascinating, sweet and especially grotesque – a distorted aspect of an overall analysis of post-millennial parental fears – all at the same time, and makes for some utterly bizarre imagery. In fact, I think I can say, without a shred of hyperbole, that this movie has some of the strangest moments you’ll see on film this year. If not in the next several years. Or maybe you’ve already seen a man dancing the waltz with a beautiful woman who is reverse jointed, has a mirror effect face, a monkey’s tail and a scorpion’s stinger?”–Nick DaCosta, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)