The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Year of Release: 1988     Directed by Terry Gilliam.  Starring John Neville, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis, Jack Purvis, Uma Thurman, Bill Paterson, Jonathan Pryce, and Oliver Reed.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a film so visually spectacular that to fully appreciate the zany genius of Terry Gilliam it portrays, one has to see it. Words will not do its imagery justice. Gilliam’s film is a story about sea monsters, Roman gods and goddesses, giants, detachable heads, reverse aging, escaping the grim reaper, flying to the moon in a ship, a man who can outrun a speeding bullet, another who can see halfway around the world, one who can blow down an entire army, and one who is the strongest man alive. The film depicts a series of adventures that defy all conventional standards of reality, depicting the banality of a world deprived of fantasy and laughing at the joy which fantasy inspires.

At the center of all these adventures is the eccentric Baron Munchausen (John Neville). Living in the midst of the Age of Reason, the Baron’s tales defy every reasonable standard and rule of logic, infuriating the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce), who insists that the Baron “won’t get far on hot air and fantasy,” but that is exactly what the Baron does, literally.

I am aware that my love for this film may make me seem crazy, but I don’t care. Gilliam is one of the only directors who could film such a story with complete seriousness, while finding joy and humor in the fantastic proceedings. (Remember: serious is not the opposite of funny. The opposite of funny is unfunny.) The Baron’s adventures are a testament both to Gilliam’s unique vision and to the importance of fantasy in transforming the inconveniences of life into amazing adventures.

One adventure of the Baron leads him and the young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) to the moon in search of Berthold (Eric Idle), the fastest man in the world, because that was where the Baron last saw Berthold twenty or so years ago. While sailing there in a ship suspended by a hot air balloon made of petticoats, the Baron promises his child companion a warm welcome from his good friend the King of the Moon. When they end up locked in a sort of birdcage, because that piccolo Casanova (the Baron) tried to make love to the king’s wife, Sally is understandably disgusted, but the Baron views it as another twist in their adventure.

Prior to being locked up, when Sally and the Baron first meet the King of the Moon, his appearance is incredible. The King has a detachable floating head that separates itself from his body and goes off in pursuit of knowledge, while his body pursues…bodily things. As that head floats into the screen for the first time, Robin Williams appears in what is a strong contender for his funniest cameo ever. His head and body are at war with one another, the latter being obsessed with physical appetites, and the former suffering delusions of grandeur from the information it has attained. Uttering lines like, “You must refer to me by my complete title: King of Everything, Rei di Tutto. But you may call me Ray,” followed by “I think; therefore, you is.” Williams delivers the humor perfectly, and he embodies the magic and danger of this world with its unpredictable curveballs. Watching him now makes his recent passing all the more tragic.

Sally and the Baron’s other adventures are as unpredictable as their run-in with the King of the Moon. They are searching for the Baron’s four former companions, so the five of them can stop the invading Turks from destroying the European city where Sally lives. Their extraordinary encounters turn from delight to danger in an instant as they climb down from the moon on a rope, fall through a volcano, meet Venus (Uma Thurman) and Vulcan (Oliver Reed), and combat a sea monster.

Taking a page from The Wizard of Oz, the dangers that the Baron and Sally face reflect the dangers facing Sally’s world back home. Several of the characters they meet are portrayed by actors who double as members of a theatre company run by Sally’s father (Bill Paterson). However, the similarity between fantasy and reality functions both ways. The theatre company performs productions of the adventures of the legendary Baron Munchausen, and everyone is shocked and incredulous when a man shows up claiming to be the actual Baron. Everyone except Sally, who innocently accepts his word as if there is nothing unusual about the tales she has grown up hearing.

It is not surprising that Sally easily accepts the Baron’s word. The opening scene makes clear that she neither understands nor cares about the proper rules and conventions that reason and practice dictate. Her father’s posters read “Salt and Son,” because that’s the way it is done. She adamantly insists that her father either reveal her non-existent brother or fix his posters.

Sally’s sense of wonder and her appreciation of fantasy is something that is sadly missing in the enlightened, logic obsessed Age of Reason. That obsession with logic and reason and disdain for fantasy is personified by the town’s mayor, the Right Honorable Horatio Jackson, who smugly tells the Baron he has no grasp of reality, to which the Baron happily replies, “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash and I’m delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever.” The Baron’s reality may appear to be nonsense, but to quote Theodor Seuss Geisel: “[Nonsense] wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

 

Content Advisory: Sexual innuendo throughout, partial nudity, and mild peril.                    MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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If I Stay

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by R. J. Cutler.  Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, and Joshua Leonard.

Opening voiceover (paraphrased from memory): “Life is funny sometimes. We can make our plans for what we will do, but then life comes along with others. Take my pal Beethoven; he was all set to be a famous pianist, but life had other plans for him. At twenty-six he went deaf and could no longer perform. So he turned to composition, and his new gig fit him perfectly.” (Wrong — Beethoven began suffering from tinnitus at twenty-six, his hearing loss became severe a few years later, and he did not go completely deaf until several years after that. He also was an established composer well before his hearing loss began.)

Evan: “Oh, boy. This is not going to be good. Maybe I should leave now and get my money back.”

Unfortunately, I did not leave, and If I Stay was a constant downhill from there. The movie was horrifically and fundamentally misconceived on almost every possible level. Just about nothing worked. The “tragic scenes” were so contrived as to be laughable; the “humor” is so forced and awkward that I cannot imagine anyone laughing at it – her parents are hippie rockers trying to force her to have fun, but she’s a prim and proper classical cellist who’s uncomfortable with partying and underage drinking (apparently the filmmakers never met a classically trained musician); the dialogue was awful – having a teenage girl say, “I hate you (or it)” every time she’s mildly upset is incredibly annoying.

The entire conflict between Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her boyfriend was based on a nonsensical plot point: she’s a super talented cellist who wants to go off to college with her boyfriend in Oregon, but she also wants to pursue her cello studies, which means she has to go to Juilliard. Why does she have to go to Juilliard to study cello? Because the movie needs a stupid unbelievable conflict, and because a “feel good” movie like this needs to have its protagonist get into (or at least audition for) the BEST MUSIC SCHOOL EVER!!!

What? There are phenomenal music schools other than Juilliard, some of which are on the West Coast? You wouldn’t know that from the film, especially since Mia only applies to one college (Juilliard). And when she auditions she selects the most clichéd, well known audition pieces possible that display almost no variety whatsoever, something no serious musician would do, unless she was in a stupid film that wanted soundtrack pieces its audience might know.

On the day that Mia is anxiously awaiting to hear back from Juilliard, and also stewing over a recent fight with her boyfriend, she and her family are in a tragic collision in which her parents and brother die and she is sent into a coma. At that point, she has an out of body experience and narrates the rest of the film wondering what will happen to her life. Will she wake up? If she does, will she and her boyfriend reconcile? And will she be accepted at Juilliard? To quote Roger Ebert, “Anyone who doesn’t immediately know the answers to these questions either lives in a cave or wrote this screenplay.”

How painfully ignorant is If I Stay? Here’s an example: at one point Mia says she used to always think of the cello as a solo instrument but eventually learned that it can be a good ensemble instrument as well. What!? Apparently she has never heard a symphony or a string quartet, the two genres which her idol Beethoven is arguably best known for.

Thankfully, this atrocity is already fading from my memory.

 

Content Advisory: An implied sexual encounter between teens, occasional profanity, and a possibly upsetting tragedy.                                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: D

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Boyhood

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Richard Linklater.  Starring Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Libby Villari.

It is inevitable for any critic that a highly acclaimed film will come along, and that critic will be surprised to discover how much he does not care for the film in question, and he will also be surprised others are so enthusiastic about said film. For me, one of those films is Boyhood. I liked parts of it – mostly the parts when Mason (Ellar Coltrane) was a child; but as a whole the film failed to engage me, and I never cared about any of the characters.

Naturally, I am surprised at my lack of enthusiasm for Boyhood, partially because many of my friends and the critics with whom I normally agree all loved it, but also because I normally like films that are quiet snapshots in time. I suppose there are two disclaimers I should make: 1) I have never liked a Linklater film other than the Celine/Jesse Before trilogy, and 2) with a few exceptions I’m generally not a fan of coming of age stories. I was really hoping this film would break both those trends, but unfortunately it did not.

My biggest complaint was Mason; while he was empathetic as a kid, once he got older he turned into the dullest, most generic, unsympathetic protagonist I can think of. He makes no decisions, lets everything bounce off him as if he doesn’t care, never gets really angry, never is enthusiastic for anything. Every other character would have made a more interesting subject for a movie than Mason: his sometimes pesky sister (Lorelei Linklater), his irresponsible father (Ethan Hawke), his stressed single mother (Patricia Arquette), his abusive alcoholic stepfather, his supportive stepsiblings, his very religious gun-toting step-grandparents, etc. Somehow in the midst of all those scenarios, Mason manages not to care about anything or anyone, mopes around about nothing in particular, and for some reason we’re supposed to sympathize with him because he’s the main character and he suffers a lot of hardships, many of which are his own damn fault. When his second stepfather chewed him out without getting aggressive or violent concerning Mason’s irresponsible behavior, that perfectly summarized Mason’s problems as well as the film’s problems. As a teenager, Mason becomes so dull that he makes Michael Palin’s chartered accountant look riveting in comparison.

I understand that many people are loving Boyhood specifically for its temporal jumps and brief snippets over a period of time. I often love those types of films myself, but with Boyhood Mason’s passive, indecisive nature made the film meander for a really, really long time. Robert Bresson (a director whose films I love) often employs elliptical editing that meanders through a character’s life, but his protagonists are always fascinating characters who make choices that affect their lives. I’m trying to think of any film I like with a passive protagonist who cares about nothing. The best examples I can think of are The Man Who Wasn’t There and Inside Llewyn Davis, both of which I love, but even those films have protagonists who make decisions, albeit lousy ones. Hamlet is famously a tragedy of a character who refuses to make a decision, but the play is driven by his inner conflict and fear of making the wrong choice. Mason has no conflict whatsoever, and consequently there is nothing to drive the film.

Boyhood is certainly ambitious, landmark filmmaking, and it has a lot of interesting vignettes, but it doesn’t add up to anything particularly worthwhile, at least not for my tastes.

 

Content Advisory: Occasional rough language, domestic violence, an implied sexual encounter between teens, and depiction of substance abuse by teens.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: C

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Pieces of April

Year of Release: 2003     Directed by Peter Hedges.  Starring Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, Oliver Platt, Alison Pill, John Gallagher Jr., and Derek Luke.

Pieces of April is a delightful, funny, heart-wrenching, and ultimately uplifting film that is sadly not nearly as well known as it should be.

After living on her own for a year in a dumpy section of New York, April (Katie Holmes) has resolved that she is going to cook her first Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family, with whom she has had a tempestuous relationship to put it mildly. Having ended her drug abuse and broken up with her dealer boyfriend, she now has her own apartment with a new boyfriend. Given her mom’s (Patricia Clarkson) cancer, April wants to mend those bonds as well.

However, as April’s younger sister Beth (Alison Pill) constantly reminds her family, April cannot cook. Since their mom is too sick to cook a big meal, Beth should be the one cooking, after all, she passed home economics, which April miserably failed.

Their mother reassures Beth and the rest of the family that driving to April’s apartment and letting her cook is the best option, because “This way, instead of April showing up with some new piercing or some ugly new tattoo and, God forbid, staying overnight, this way, we get to show up, experience the disaster that is her life, smile through it, and before you know it, we’re on our way back home.”

Now I called this film funny. So far, I do not think I’m making it sound funny. April’s good-hearted, but inexperienced attempts at cooking truly are hilarious, especially for anyone who’s ever botched a difficult recipe on a first attempt. Her most foolish culinary decisions simultaneously evoke laughter and sympathy. April’s desire to make a simple gift of a meal to her family is truly touching, but trying to mash raw potatoes, placing hot stuffing in a turkey with your bare hands, cramming uncut stalks of celery into the stuffing, and insisting that cranberry sauce out of a jar tastes just as good as homemade is genuinely funny.

April’s troubles do not end with her lack of cooking experience. Right as she is about to start cooking the turkey, she discovers her oven is not working, and she frantically asks her neighbors if she can use one of their ovens. During her search, she meets people even more selfish than anyone in her family, but she also encounters people who aid her with surprising acts of compassion and generosity. April’s interactions with her neighbors are made all the more tense due to the anxiety she feels over seeing her family for the first time in almost a year.

Even though April wants to see her family and please them with her cooking, she is still bitter towards them for their lack of support and afraid that she will never be good enough for them. As she makes place cards, she writes “Mom” on one, and then throws it away, replacing it with one that reads “Joy.” On the other hand, she exhibits the giddy nervousness of a child as she decorates her apartment hallways with balloons, streamers, and drawings.

In many ways, April is still a child, but she is a child whose foolish decisions and uncompassionate family forced her to grow up too quickly, losing important years with her family. The resulting tension and April’s desire for reconciliation is portrayed by masterful cutting between April preparing Thanksgiving dinner and her family driving to New York, dreading how awful this Thanksgiving is going to be. April’s father (Oliver Platt) is the only one who has any hope that his daughter might succeed, and even he is easily quieted as his wife and younger daughter remind him of all April’s failures, which obviously weaken his resolve.

The unease between April and her family is illustrated when her Asian neighbors ask her what Americans celebrate on Thanksgiving. She tries to tell the story of the first Thanksgiving three times. First, she describes the big harvest and celebration; then she mentions the Pilgrims getting as much food and knowledge from the Native Americans before stealing all their land. Finally, sensing the confusion of her neighbors, she simply concludes the holiday exists as a memorial to a time when everyone came together to celebrate, in recognition of how much they needed everyone else to survive.

The unique blend of humor and pathos pulled off a rare achievement by making me laugh and cry simultaneously. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before.

 

Content Advisory: An out of frame sex scene, drug use, some strong vulgar language, cohabitation, photos of medical nudity, and themes of intense family discord.                    MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A-

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Evan’s Writing Elsewhere

I’d like to thank Ken Morefield, the editor of  1More Film Blog, for giving me an outlet to write reviews for Clannad – The Motion Picture and The Maid’s RoomI will post links here for any future reviews I write for 1More Film Blog.

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